U.S. Somali Enclaves Probed for Terrorism Links
December 22, 2008
FBI Probes Terrorism Links in U.S. Somali Enclaves
By EVAN PEREZ
WASHINGTON -- Federal agents are investigating whether young men from Somali immigrant enclaves in the U.S. are traveling back to their parents' homeland to fight on the side of Islamist terror groups.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is following the trail of more than a dozen young men missing from Somali communities in several U.S. cities, including Minneapolis, Boston and Columbus, Ohio, according to people familiar with the probe. Counterterrorism officials in Europe and Australia also are investigating similar reports in their countries.
Families of three teenagers earlier this month went public in Minneapolis, home to the largest Somali enclave in the U.S., saying their teenagers had disappeared in recent months and then turned up in Somalia. The families were spurred to action in part after twin October terror bombings in their homeland. One of them is believed to have been the first suicide bombing carried out by an American, according to U.S. law-enforcement officials.
Somali community leaders say the families are assisting authorities to find out how the young men, some of them immigrants and others American-born, were recruited. "Two of the mothers received phone calls from kids saying that they were in Somalia, in Mogadishu city, saying that they cannot talk and that they will see them in heaven," says Omar Jamal, executive director of Minneapolis's Somali Justice Advocacy Center.
Nearly two decades of civil war have ripped apart Somalia, including an invasion two years ago by troops from neighboring Ethiopia that ousted an Islamist government that U.S. officials say was allied with al Qaeda. Ethiopia has said it plans to withdraw, which would likely make way for the loose coalition of Islamist insurgents threatening to retake the central government's seat in Mogadishu.
U.S. Somali community leaders estimate that as many as 20 men may have left the U.S. to fight in the past two years.
The reports have raised concern among counterterrorism officials about immigrant youths being recruited by radical groups. For years, terrorism experts have believed that better assimilation of immigrants in the U.S. than elsewhere makes the threat of radicalization of young Muslims less than it is in Britain and other countries with large immigrant communities beset by high unemployment and less opportunity. The Somali case could cause that view to be reassessed.
E.K. Wilson, an FBI special agent in the bureau's Minneapolis office, said he couldn't confirm the existence of an investigation, but he said the FBI is aware that "a number of young Somali men from throughout the United States have left, potentially to fight with terrorist groups. We're in the process of working with the local Somali community to get the parents to come to us with concerns about radicalization of youths."
The FBI confirmed it is assisting the Somali government in the October bombing investigation, and that it helped repatriate the body of an American killed in the incident. The FBI wouldn't identify the person.
At a news conference at a Minneapolis mosque earlier this month, family members of three young men, 17 to 19 years old, told reporters that they were alarmed after the teens disappeared in early November. They next heard from the teens that they were in Somalia and had no contact thereafter.
The FBI is trying to find out whether there are recruitment networks helping the men travel to Somalia, according to people familiar with the probe.
The investigation is complicated by the close-knit, clan-dominated culture of Somalia, which persists even in the diaspora. The nation has been without a unified central government for nearly two decades, and has been ripped apart by conflict among warlords and clans.
"It's very serious," Mr. Jamal said. "The community finds itself dumbfounded. One thing they are really interested in is to find who is doing the financing, who is doing the training and who is sending them to fight a war."
U.S. counterterrorism officials have been on guard for homegrown recruitment by radical groups. Intelligence analysts from the New York Police Department, in a study of radicalization in Western Muslim communities, warned that "jihadist ideology" is "proliferating in Western democracies at a logarithmic rate." The study said it was particularly difficult for law enforcement to detect such activity, since much of the motivation is individual and is derived from sources on the Internet.
In a 2002 case against the so-called Lackawanna Six, federal authorities won convictions against six Americans of Yemeni descent on charges of providing support to al Qaeda. Peter Ahearn, former chief of the FBI's Buffalo, N.Y., field office and leader of the Lackawanna investigation, says investigators "have to assume the possibility" that young men who travel to Somalia to fight could become radicalized and turn against the U.S.
Still, he said, U.S. authorities should be encouraged that the Somali families went public with their concerns. "The fact that they came forward says a lot," he said. "In Europe, they wouldn't come forward to the police."
Somalis in U.S. draw FBI attention
The FBI is expanding contacts with Somali immigrant communities in the U.S., especially in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, fearing that terrorists are recruiting young men for suicide missions in their homeland.
FBI Special Agent E.K. Wilson, spokesman for the Twin Cities FBI field office, described the effort as community outreach.
Many members of the Somali community are concerned over disappearances, he said.
Officials would not provide the exact number of missing, but about 20 men in their late teens and early 20s have disappeared in recent months and are thought to have joined Islamist rebels who are on the verge of overthrowing the U.S.- and U.N.-backed government in Somalia.
Most were from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, the site of the largest concentration of ethnic Somalis in the U.S., but other Somali communities have had young men go missing as well.
The FBI assisted in returning the remains of one Somali man, Shirwa Ahmed, a naturalized U.S. citizen killed Oct. 29 in a suicide bombing in northern Somalia. The FBI would not say whether Mr. Ahmed was a bomber or victim in the attack, in which five terrorists killed themselves and 29 others.
In another incident, U.S. officials confirmed that a missile strike in Somalia had killed a Seattle man suspected of being an Islamist radical working with an al Qaeda-affiliated group.
Ruben Shumpert, a Muslim convert who changed his name to Amir Abdul Muhaimin, had been wanted on federal gun charges.
He was killed in Somalia sometime before Oct. 1, said U.S. officials who described the strike as part of anti-terrorist military operations carried out in recent months.
"The FBI is aware of the issue," said Richard Kolko, an FBI spokesman in Washington. "We know many in the Somali community are concerned about it."
Mr. Kolko declined further comment.