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Tuesday, March 17, 2009 | FBI counterterrorism agents and federal prosecutors in San Diego are conducting a grand-jury investigation of Islamist extremists suspected of recruiting local Somali-American youths to attend a terrorist training camp in the Middle East and return to launch attacks on fellow Americans.
The FBI has interviewed dozens of members of San Diego’s Somali community — the fifth-largest in the United States — and at least one Somali American has been subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury within the next two weeks, said Mahir Sherif, a defense lawyer who has consulted with the soon-to-be witness.
“I suspect they’re looking into any kind of organized financing, material support, and/or indoctrination and radicalization of Somali youth,” Sherif said.
FBI officials said during congressional testimony last week that there is no reason to believe Somali jihadists are about to attack in the U.S., but the recruitment of U.S. citizens by terrorist groups is particularly troubling because Americans would presumably have no problem reentering the country.
The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in San Diego began the investigation after reports that Somali youths were being lured from their homes in Minneapolis, in many cases unbeknownst to their families, to fight in Somalia.
One of the Somali recruits who had left Minneapolis became the first known U.S. citizen suicide bomber. He detonated a bomb he was wearing Sept. 29 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.
The bomber, Shirwa Ahmed, a 27-year-old college student, was a naturalized U.S. citizen who had been raised in Minneapolis since he was 8 months old.
The news media has reported that a Minneapolis grand jury is also hearing testimony on the subject. The FBI has interviewed at least 50 Somalis in Minneapolis and issued at least 10 subpoenas, according to news reports.
A woman who identified herself as a 20-year-old student at the University of Minnesota said that during her four-hour testimony recently she was asked about the missing young men, who they hung out with in Minneapolis, and why they may have left, according to Fox News reports. She said the FBI informed her that she was not a target of the investigation and did not face any charges.
Sherif said he is not aware of any missing young Somali men from San Diego who might have been lured out of the U.S. to attend terrorist training camps or fight in Somalia.
“I haven’t seen anything that leads me to believe there is any kind of concerted effort here to recruit them,” Sherif said. If that were the case, it would take a mass conspiracy to cover it up, he said, and that just isn’t happening.
Sherif declined to identify the soon-to-be grand jury witness but described him as a naturalized U.S. citizen in his 30s with no terrorist ties. He was ordered to supply the panel with fingerprints and palm prints for unknown reason.
“Why? That’s the million dollar question,” Sherif said. “This person has no connection to people in Minnesota but he is of Somali descent, and politically active in the Somali community. I think what they’re doing is collecting his ‘DNA.’”
Sherif said the witness is not a target of the investigation, and though Sherif offered to attempt to quash the subpoena, the witness has chosen to cooperate.
The Somali man may have raised a red flag for the FBI because he recently traveled to the Middle East, Sherif speculated.
“These days if you’re a Muslim American male and you’re traveling you’re in the government’s eye. If you’re Somali and traveling to that part of the world you’re likely to be looked at more closely,” he said.
In San Diego’s Somali community, with an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 immigrants, there is some trepidation about the FBI’s attention, Sherif said.
“I wouldn’t characterize this as harassment. However you’re talking about an immigrant community who doesn’t know much about the way the system works, who may have immigration issues, and rumors travel fast so there’s a lot of misinformation,” Sherif said. “It’s not necessarily the FBI’s fault but it has raised the level of anxiety in the community.”
Sherif said he senses that federal agents are being so zealous because they are playing catch-up.
“I think there’s a concern among law enforcement that they may have missed the boat in the sense they just became aware of this issue. How long has the traveling and training been going on? They’re backtracking.”
In a Feb. 23 speech, FBI Director Robert Mueller spoke about the luring of young Somali Americans to extremist groups and the FBI’s efforts to make inroads in that community.
“The prospect of young men, indoctrinated and radicalized within their own communities and induced to travel to Somalia to take up arms — and to kill themselves and perhaps many others — is a perversion of the immigrant story,” Mueller told the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.
“The parents of many of these young men risked everything to come to America, to provide their children with a brighter, more stable future. For these parents to leave a war-torn country only to find that their children have been convinced to return to that way of life is indeed heartbreaking. And it raises the question of whether these young men will one day come home, and, if so, what they might undertake here.”
During his speech, Mueller also made a reference to San Diego in the context of the terrorist attack in Mumbai in which terrorists killed more than 170 individuals and wounded more than 300.
“This type of attack reminds us that terrorists with large agendas and little money can use rudimentary weapons to maximize their impact,” Mueller said. “And it again raises the question of whether a similar attack could happen in Seattle or San Diego, Miami or Manhattan.”
One of Mueller’s top aides, Philip Mudd, who’s in charge of the bureau’s national security branch, told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs last week that the intelligence community is not aware of any imminent attacks in the U.S. by Somali Americans.
However, he said, “We remain concerned about this possibility and that it might be exploited in the future if other U.S. persons travel to Somalia for similar purposes. The fact that one of the Minneapolis youths participated in a suicide attack in northern Somalia in late October 2008 — which we believe is the first instance of a U.S. citizen participating in a suicide attack anywhere — has only added to concern over the possibility that individuals may engage in terrorist activity upon their return to the United States.”
Mudd told the committee he believes the number of Somali recruits from the United States is in the “tens.”
Still, he said, the intelligence community is watching the situation closely because of the relationship between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, the East African terror group believed responsible for the recruiting of young Somali men from Minnesota, San Diego and elsewhere. Al-Shabaab’s goal is to establish an Islamic state in Somalia.
Counterterrorism officials have said they expect a merger between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab.
Kelly Thornton is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.