Officials: Terror worries tied to Midwest Somalis

Thursday, March 12, 2009

WASHINGTON -- An expected merger between al-Qaida and an East African terror group that has recruited young Somali men from Minnesota could increase the danger to the U.S., counterterrorism officials told Congress on Wednesday.

They said it will likely take time for the Somalia-based al-Shabab to extend its focus beyond its own country and mirror al-Qaida's jihadist views.

Andrew Liepman, deputy director of intelligence at the National Counterterrorism Center, said that so far, the Somali-American teens who disappeared from their homes in the Minneapolis region and were lured back to Somalia to fight are more likely being used as "cannon fodder" there. And it does not yet appear that they are being trained to return to the U.S. to set up sleeper cells for potential attacks, he said.

Both Liepman and J. Philip Mudd, a senior FBI official, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, however, that counterterrorism officials are watching the situation closely because of al-Qaida's potential influence on al-Shabab.

Mudd said he believes the number of Somali recruits from the U.S. is in the "tens," and officials noted that other Americans have also gone to Somalia to join the fight there.

The State Department considers al-Shabab a terrorist organization, with growing links to al-Qaida, something the group denies. Al-Shabab, which means "The Youth," has been gaining ground as Somalia's Western-backed government crumbles. The group's goal is to establish an Islamic state in Somalia.

Officials also told the panel that recent changes in Somalia, including the departure of Ethiopian forces from Mogadishu after two years, may dilute al-Shabab's insurgency there by removing one of their key rallying points.

Late last year, a young Somali man who had left Minneapolis became a suicide bomber. He detonated a bomb he was wearing as part of a series of coordinated attacks targeting a U.N. compound, the Ethiopian consulate and the presidential palace in Somaliland's capital, Hargeisa. It was the first known time a U.S. citizen was a suicide bomber.

Osman Ahmed's nephew was one of the other recruits lured away from Minnesota. And Ahmed told the senators Wednesday that he blamed the high school student's departure in part on a local mosque.

He said his nephew, Burhan Hassan, was just 8 months old when he left his Somali homeland, traveling first to a refugee camp in Kenya before settling in Minnesota with his mother. Hassan, he said, was a good student and was taking calculus and chemistry in his senior year at Roosevelt High School and studying Islam at the nearby Abu-Bakar As-Saddique mosque.

Ahmed said others who disappeared also went to the mosque.

"It is the dream of every Somali parent to have their children go to the mosque, but none of them expected to have their children's mind programmed in a manner that is in line with the extremist's ideologies," he said.

According to Ahmed, information the families have gotten back from people in Somalia suggests the teens are lured back with notions of Islamic utopia. When they arrive, he said, they are whisked to military camps and are told that if they try to return to the U.S. they will end up in the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba.

The counterterrorism officials stressed that they are not seeing a widespread radicalization of Somali-Americans, many of whom fled the violence in their homeland. Many, they said, are single mothers struggling to raise their families and fit in despite ongoing language and cultural hurdles.

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