Somali Americans Recruited by Extremists

Spencer S. Hsu and Carrie Johnson, Washington Post, March 11, 2009

Senior U.S. counterterrorism officials are stepping up warnings that Islamist extremists in Somalia are radicalizing Americans to their cause, citing their recruitment of the first U.S. citizen suicide bomber and their potential role in the disappearance of more than a dozen Somali American youths.

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Since November, the FBI has raced to uncover any ties to foreign extremist networks in the unexpected departures of numerous Somali American teenagers and young men, who family members believe are in Somalia. The investigation is active in Boston; San Diego; Seattle; Columbus, Ohio; and Portland, Maine, a U.S. law enforcement official said, and community members say federal grand juries have issued subpoenas in Minneapolis and elsewhere.

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Al-Shabaab–meaning “the youth” or “young guys” in Arabic–“presents U.S. authorities with the most serious evidence to date of a ‘homegrown’ terrorist recruitment problem right in the American heartland,” Georgetown University professor Bruce R. Hoffman says in a forthcoming report by the SITE Intelligence Group, a private firm that monitors Islamist Web sites.

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U.S. officials give varying assessments of the problem. On Feb. 25, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta told reporters that the relationship between Somalis in the United States and in Somalia “raises real concerns about the potential for terrorist activity” and “constitutes a potential threat to the security of this country.”

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Overall, U.S. intelligence officials assess that “homegrown” extremists are not as numerous, active or skilled here as they are in Europe, but authorities remain focused on what Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair called the “likelihood that a small but violent number of cells may develop here.”

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U.S. authorities have been wary of stereotyping Somalis or overstating concerns, with Mueller recently comparing the situation to that in Ireland, another country with civil strife, terrorism and a large immigrant community in the United States but little violence here.

Al-Shabaab’s ranks may also diminish now that an Islamist government has replaced a U.S.-backed Ethiopian occupation in Somalia. “It’s very difficult to see how launching an attack using a sleeper cell in the United States would in any way serve their interests,” said Kenneth J. Menkhaus, a political scientist at Davidson College who specializes in East Africa.

The FBI investigation of Ahmed’s death may help determine how broad the problem is. The coordinated bombings in two cities about 500 miles north of Mogadishu represented “a qualitative leap” of terrorist capabilities and were probably the work of al-Shabaab, according to a United Nations monitoring group. In February 2008, the State Department designated al-Shabaab a terrorist group.

Little has been said publicly about Ahmed [Shirwa Ahmed, a 27-year-old college student from Minneapolis who blew himself up in Somalia in October], a naturalized citizen who reportedly moved to Minneapolis in 1996 and graduated from high school there. As accounts of his death spread, distraught Somali American families came forward in Minneapolis, alleging that the first young man left a year ago, then eight more on Aug. 1, followed by seven on Election Day. Four families spoke out publicly, and U.S. authorities confirmed the names of Burhan Hassan, 17, and Mustafa Ali, 17, high school seniors who families said attended the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center mosque.

Relatives tell similar stories. Hassan was a bookworm who wanted to become a doctor or a lawyer and spent time after school and on weekends at the mosque, Minnesota’s largest, which Ali also attended, said Osman Ahmed, 43, Hassan’s cousin. Two 19-year-olds were studying medicine and engineering at the University of Minnesota, but they became antisocial, speaking and eating less as they grew more devout, Ahmed said.

Hassan had no job and no money, but when he did not come home Nov. 4, his family discovered that his passport, laptop computer and cellphone were gone, and they found paperwork for nearly $2,000 in airfare, Ahmed said. He said Universal Travel, a nearby travel agency, had said an adult claiming to be a parent paid for tickets for several youths.

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Somalis as a whole may be vulnerable to radical appeals because their home country has been torn by two decades of political strife and they are among the youngest, poorest and newest immigrants to the United States. According to a U.S. census report, nearly 60 percent of Somali immigrants arrived since 2000; their average age is 26.8 years; and 51 percent live in poverty, with a median household income of $21,461, compared with the national median of $61,173.

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[Editor’s Note: A related article can be read here.]

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