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WASHINGTON - Minneapolis has become the focus of a wide-ranging FBI investigation into a terrorist group's recruitment of young immigrant men for service in Somalia's ethnic and religious warfare.
The group, Al-Shabab, an Al-Qaida offshoot, is suspected of being involved in the disappearance of as many as 20 young Somali-Americans who have vanished from their homes in the Twin Cities and turned up with the radical Islamist group in Somalia.
Federal counter-terrorism officials told a U.S. Senate committee Wednesday that the recruitment represents a potential security threat to the United States. If recruits were to be indoctrinated abroad and later returned to America, they could "provide Al-Qaida with trained extremists inside the United States," said Andrew Liepman, deputy director of intelligence in the National Counterterrorism Center of the Directorate of Intelligence.
"We have seen Al-Qaida franchise itself around the world," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who chairs the committee. But he also said there is no evidence of the radicalization of the Somali-American community generally.
Philip Mudd, an assistant director of the FBI's National Security Branch, said that the mostly impressionable youths recruited in Minnesota and in other Somali communities around the U.S. seem more likely to become "cannon fodder" than high-level terrorist operatives. Mudd told the committee that some recruits are as young as 12 years old.
The concerns were highlighted by the case of Shirwa Ahmed, a 27-year-old college student from Minneapolis who is believed to be the first U.S. citizen to become a suicide bomber. Ahmed blew himself up in Somalia in October in an attack that killed up to 30 people.
The homeland security committee investigating recruitments heard Wednesday from two leaders of the Twin Cities Somali community.
Osman Ahmed said his suspicions were first aroused one day last November, when school officials in Minneapolis reported that his nephew, Burhan Hassan, an "A" student at Roosevelt High, had missed all his classes.
"That, to us, sounded strange," Ahmed testified. "We were stunned."
Ahmed, president of the Riverside Plaza Tenants Association in Minneapolis, testified alongside Abdirahman Mukhtar, a youth program manager at the Brian Coyle Community Center, which serves as a resettlement hub for the city's growing Somali community.
It's a community that was deeply shocked by the story of Shirwa Ahmed, said Mukhtar, who went to Roosevelt High with the deceased bomber. "It goes against Somali culture," said Mukhtar. "It is also inherently anti-Islamic."
Despite the alarm, both Somali and U.S. officials say the problem represents the anguish of a few vulnerable youths, not the radicalization of the broader Somali community, which numbers more than 100,000 in the Twin Cities.
"Somali youth talk more about March Madness, Kobe Bryant, and the NFL draft than they do about Shirwa," Mukhtar told the Senate Homeland Security Committee. "Many do not know much about him."
'Public relations bonanza'
While cases like Shirwa Ahmed's and Burhan Hassan's have made Minneapolis the focus of the FBI's investigation, Somali youths have also been recruited in Columbus, Seattle and San Diego.
Lieberman said the problem illustrates not only the stresses within the immigrant community, but also the decentralization of the global jihadist movement.
Foot-soldiers from America and other Western countries are "a public relations bonanza for them," testified Liepman, of the National Counterterrorism Center of the Directorate of Intelligence.
While the relatively inexperienced Somali-American youths are of limited value as rank-and-file militia in Somalia, they possess American passports and represent a potential security threat for the United States.
But some experts caution that Al-Shabab's focus so far has been on Somalia and the U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces that have been occupying the war-torn nation.
"The threat requires careful law enforcement but should not be overblown," said Ken Menkhaus, a political scientist who has researched Somalia at Davidson College in North Carolina.
'Minority group' at mosque
Local and federal law enforcement officials say they have been focusing on the group's recruitment and fundraising activities in Minnesota. But fear of getting their kids into trouble has prevented some Somali parents from cooperating with U.S. investigators. "It's a very closed community," Mudd said.
According to Osman Ahmed, one of the first to cooperate with authorities, speaking openly has also invited the wrath of other Somali leaders who fear that the publicity will damage their community.
"We have been threatened for just speaking out," said Osman Ahmed. Some Somalis, he said, fear that if they talk to the FBI, they or their children will be sent to Guantanamo as suspected terrorists.
Those youths who disappeared, like his nephew, also appear to have been brainwashed with fear and misinformation, he said. He said the story of his nephew is typical.
Burhan Hassan, 17, was an infant when his family fled Somalia. But to stay in touch with the culture of his parents, he studied Islam at the Abu-Bakar As-Saddique mosque in Minneapolis. There, Osman Ahmed said, his nephew appears to have made contact with a "minority group" that exposed his nephew to extremist ideologies.
Osman Ahmed said that while he is not blaming the mosque itself, "these kids have no perception of Somalia except the one that was formed in their minds by their teachers at the Abu-Bakar Center."
Mosque officials have denied teaching violence or encouraging young Somalis to take part in the fighting in their homeland.
One of those who defends the mosque is Rep. Keith Ellison, the Minneapolis Democrat who became the first Muslim elected to Congress. Ellison, who sat in on the hearing, said there is no evidence that the missing youths were indoctrinated at the mosque.
"I think the more likely scenario is with the Internet and the telephone, it's probably through that," Ellison said.
Whoever recruited the young men, Osman Ahmed believes the young people did not decide to go to Somalia on their own.
"These Somali-American kids were not troubled kids or in gangs," Osman Ahmed said. "They were the hope of the Somali-American community."
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753