Somali Militant group in Midwest Triggers US
LOLITA C. BALDOR
Associated Press Writer
February 26, 2009
WASHINGTON (AP) — As people crowded
into the capital for Barack Obama's
inaugural celebration, senior counterterrorism officials huddled in the White
House situation room, frantically trying to unravel intelligence about a
possible attack on Washington.
By Tuesday afternoon, as Obama took the oath of
office, the threat of a terror plot by the Somalia-based al-Shabab
organization had been debunked, but the flurry of activity underscored growing
worries about this Islamic militant group.
"I think they are a serious problem, and I don't think that we should be
glib and take it lightly," said Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary
of Defense for African Affairs. "Are they the ones that are going to plan
the next major terrorist attack in the United States and carry it out? Probably not. But could they provide some of the foot
soldiers for it? Yes."
The State Department considers al-Shabab a terrorist
organization with 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 say they detect a disturbing pattern, one that mirrors al-Qaida methods and could spawn homegrown insurgents and
suicide bombers in the U.S.
Counterterrorism officials suspect that al-Shabab is
recruiting young men from Somali communities in Minnesota
and other Midwestern states, luring them back to their home country for terror
training and creating cells of fighters who could travel to other countries,
including the United States,
to launch attacks.
Four months ago, a young Somali man left Minneapolis
to become a suicide bomber. He detonated a bomb he was wearing, one step in a
series of coordinated attacks targeting a U.N. compound, the Ethiopian
consulate and the presidential palace in Somaliland's
It was the first known time a U.S.
citizen was a suicide bomber.
In response, the FBI stepped up efforts to reach out to community leaders in
the Minneapolis area, where young
Somali-American men have disappeared and are believed to have traveled to Somalia to
fight with militants. FBI spokesman E.K. Wilson said that since the
disappearances, the bureau has worked to expand relationships with community
elders, religious leaders and others active in the local Somali population,
which numbers about 80,000.
"We want them to come forward with concerns about their young
said. "We share the same concerns. We want to help, and we need people
with concerns to come forward with information."
U.S. officials aren't sure
who is recruiting for al-Shabab, or whether recruits
trained in Somalia have been returning to the United States. That uncertainty
increased the concerns about the inaugural weekend intelligence reports.
Counterterrorism officials described the time as tense as they faced a threat
that appeared to grow in credibility as the hours passed.
At the National Counterterrorism
Center in northern Virginia,
law enforcement, intelligence and military authorities worked to dissect the
threat, which emanated from a suspect in Uganda. At the White House,
outgoing Bush administration officials and their incoming Obama
counterparts monitored the situation while preparing for the presidential
The most alarming aspect, said one former Bush official, was that they knew the
inauguration would be a good target for any terrorist group, because of the
huge crowds and political significance. And there already had been several
cases that linked individuals, including Somalis, in the United States to terrorist acts in Somalia. Those
— Daniel Maldonado, a New Hampshire native,
trained at a terrorist camp in Somalia
alongside al-Qaida members in efforts to help
overthrow the Somali government. He was captured by Kenyan military while
trying to flee Somalia and
is serving a 10-year prison sentence in the U.S.
— Rupert Shumpert, who was from Seattle, was indicted on counterfeit charges
in a case that also concluded he spoke often in support for jihad. He fled the
country and went to Somalia,
where he was killed last year.
— Shirwa Ahmed, a young Somali-American, left his
family in Minnesota and blew himself up in one
of the coordinated suicide bombings in Somalia last Oct. 29.
Whelan, who has been a senior policy adviser on African issues at the Pentagon
for 14 years, said the al-Shabab threat is complex
and evolving, potentially becoming more serious as al-Qaida
or other Islamic ideologues try to make inroads into the Somali communities in
"There has been a lot of movement back and forth
for a long time, and that leaves us open to the potential that weaknesses will
be exploited by those that have jihadist aims,"
she said. "We need to be very careful because we have seen that we are
internally vulnerable because of the Somali Diaspora."
Federal authorities won't say whether they've tracked any of the Somali youth
returning to the U.S.
after traveling to their homeland and receiving terror training. But FBI
Director Robert Mueller expressed concern Monday about efforts to recruit
Somali youth and asserted that the FBI believes others are being
In remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations, Mueller said it's particularly
unfortunate that parents who came to the United States to escape violence in
their home country would see their children drawn back into violence, calling
it a perversion of the immigrant's story.
He said it "raises the question of whether these young
men will one day come home, and, if so, what they might undertake
The al-Shabab threat also has attracted attention in
Congress, where the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee
is planning to hold a hearing on the rise of al-Shabab.