The head of the largest Somali-American youth organization told Congress on Thursday that the United States faces "an uphill battle" in the fight against the Somalia-based al-Shabab terrorist network's active recruiting operations in American cities.
Officials must work with local partners in these cities "to deter youth from becoming radicalized and recruited," said Mohamed Farah, executive director of Ka Joog, a Minnesota-based grass-roots group whose name in Somali means "stay away." Minnesota is home to the nation's largest Somali emigre community.
Mr. Farah, told a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that the al Qaeda-linked group al-Shabab preys on "disenfranchised" Somali youth and that U.S. agencies should be doing more to aid organizations like his own in the fight to "eliminate this cancerous ideology."
The sobering remarks came amid heightened concern among U.S. law enforcement and intelligence official about the possibility that al-Shabab may be plotting attacks on "soft targets" in the United States — following the group's horrific attack two weeks ago on a high-end shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, that killed dozens.
The FBI has ramped up investigations since al-Shabab claimed via Twitter that three Somali-Americans, recruited from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and Kansas City, were among the gunmen who laid siege to the mall.
The FBI has not yet confirmed or denied the claims that three Somali-Americans were among those who carried out the attack that killed 67 people.
Rep. Brad Sherman, California Democrat, said Thursday that Kenyan government authorities have "painted a picture" of 10 to 15 attackers involved in the siege, which began Sept. 21 and lasted four days.
But questions remain about the validity of the claims made on Twitter.
Richard Downie, the deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, testified that the Twitter messages were unreliable and that "Kenyan authorities have been very slow in providing information about the attack."
"We still don't know some of the very basics: How many attackers and what groups? How many escaped? Were hostages taken?" Mr. Downie said. "We have very, very little to go on other than now — it turns out — a fake Twitter account from al-Shabab, which gave a list of names of people."
Mr. Farah told The Washington Times later Thursday it's unclear whether Somali-Americans were among the attackers.
"No one knows yet," Mr. Farah said. "I'm sure our government is doing everything they can to see if those names actually are folks that left the United States. But from what we know now, it still seems to be just an allegation."
An American connection?
But it is disconcerting allegation, and one that over the past two weeks has fueled fresh congressional interest in al-Shabab — particularly its recruitment activicites in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, where an estimated 80,000 Somali-Americans live.
According to statements by congressional and law enforcement officials — and a review of federal indictments leveled over the past five years against Somali-Americans suspected of ties to al-Shabab — as many as 60 young men may have left the United States to travel to Somalia and fight on behalf of the terrorist group.
"Al-Shabab has demonstrated a unique ability to recruit young members of the Somali diaspora community in the United States and Europe," warned Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
"We need to be on top of this al Qaeda-aligned group's reach into the United States," he said during Thursday's hearing. "Al Qaeda leadership recently encouraged sympathizers in the U.S. to carry out smaller, but still deadly attacks as individuals, or in teams of two or three. Such strikes on U.S. soil could be similar to the one al-Shabab launched against the mall in Kenya."
The notion that al-Shabab is operationally capable of pursuing such an attack in America has long been downplayed by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement sources, who describe the network as having the least interest among al Qaeda affiliates in the Middle East and Africa of conducting attacks outside the region.
Terrorism analysts testifying Thursday appeared to caution against playing up fears of a potential attack by al-Shabab on U.S. soft targets, saying the group is far more likely to stage attacks in Africa.
"At the moment, al-Shabab does not appear to be plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland, but there are several reasons why America should still be concerned about al-Shabab," said Seth Jones, a Rand Corp. security analyst.
Africa in the cross hairs
U.S. and Western government officials note that al-Shabab and its leader, Ahmed Abdi al-Mohamed, "have expressed an interest in striking U.S. and other foreign targets in East Africa," Mr. Jones said.
"They have also planned to kidnap Americans and other foreigners in the region, as well as plotted attacks against malls, supermarkets, embassies and other locations frequented by Westerners," Mr. Jones said. "After all, al-Shabab leaders consider the United States an enemy."
His remarks were echoed by former FBI special agent Don Borelli, who led a 2010 investigation into a series of deadly bombings that al-Shabab carried out in Uganda.
The "fear," said Mr. Borelli, is that once Somali-Americans become involved al-Shabab's missions, they "could be converted into following the global agenda, the al Qaeda agenda, and return to the U.S. to launch attacks."
Successfully mitigating the threat will require a "multifaceted" strategy, said Mr. Borelli, who emphasized the need for U.S. agencies to "expand our efforts in promoting education and critical thinking among would-be recruits for terrorist groups."
But such efforts are so far falling short, according to Mr. Farah, who told The Times that many in the Somali-American community in Minneapolis "feel like we're alone, fighting this ourselves."
"We're getting zero funding," he said. "There's no one program in the Somali community that is fully supported by the federal government."
"There's two ways to do this, either we are in a reactive mode or a preventive mode," Mr. Farah said, adding that it is "unrealistic" that community organizations like Ka Joog are volunteer based "and al-Shabab has millions of dollars to recruit children."
"How do we win that battle?" he asked.
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