U.S. law enforcement authorities are investigating claims, first made via Twitter over the weekend by the al-Shabab terrorist network and now by the Kenyan government, that three Somali-Americans are among the gunmen who committed the mall massacre in Kenya.
A source familiar with the investigation told The Washington Times on Monday that the FBI has sent an envoy from its New York field office to Kenya to pursue the identities of the men cited by al-Shabab — a Somalia-based al Qaeda affiliate known to have drawn recruits during recent years from the large Somali-American community in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
While leaders of that community cried out Monday with condemnations of the Kenya attack, the suspected U.S. connection ratcheted up concerns among some U.S. law enforcement and national security officials about the potential that al-Shabab might pursue similar attacks in America against "soft" undefended targets such as shopping malls, theaters, concerts and sporting events.
"The fear is that if a couple young men returned to the United States with training to conduct military attacks on U.S. citizens, you could take the template of this mall attack that's happening right now in Kenya and apply it to the U.S.," said Anders Folk, the former assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Minnesota, who played a key role in the district's prosecution of several al-Shabab-related cases from 2008 to 2010.
While this would be a worst-case scenario, "the reality at this point is that up to 60 people have been identified by the U.S. government as having traveled over to fight on behalf of al-Shabab. If we're 90 percent effective in making those identifications, that still leaves a couple of people out there we don't know about," said Mr. Folk, now a private lawyer in Minneapolis.
Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, told CNN on Monday that intelligence and law enforcement officials have been trying for years to track the dozens of Somali-Americans who have signed up with al-Shabab with an eye to their possible return to the U.S.
"There possibly could be Americans over there that we don't know about, and that's one of my biggest concerns," he said, adding that while al-Shabab's focus "has been more regional," aimed at Somalia and Kenya, "the idea that they can come back into the United States is a real valid concern."
Kenyan military forces were engaged in a major push Monday night to route al-Shabab's machine-gun-armed operatives from the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, where officials estimate that at least 62 people have been killed and more than 200 injured.
Members of the some 70,000-strong Somali-American community in Minnesota condemned the attack Monday while waiting anxiously to see whether any Somali-Americans were, in fact, involved in the violence.
Community and religious leaders called a news conference at a Minneapolis mosque to "condemn the heinous act of senseless violence," according to The Associated Press, which reported that the group also said they wanted "to stand in solidarity with the victims and their families and to point out the menace of extremism."
Some from the community have relatives who were injured in the attack.
"I'm sad and frustrated and angry. I'm angry at the ones that decided to attack innocent people there," said Hodan Hassan, whose nieces — Fardosa Abdi, 17, and Dheman Abdi, 16 — were shopping at the mall in Nairobi when the siege started. According to the AP report, Mrs. Hassan said Fardosa was in critical condition Monday after undergoing two surgeries for severe leg injuries, while Dheman had a bullet break her leg and an explosion injured her arm.
"It's people who don't care, with no hearts," Mrs. Hassan said of the terrorists.
Fears in recent years that al-Shabab could pursue such an attack in America have been downplayed by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement sources, who have long described the network as having the least interest among the al Qaeda affiliates of conducting attacks outside its own country.
But al-Shabab is an evolving organization, which U.S. intelligence sources say is less focused today on trying to take over Somalia than it once was.
Intelligence sources told The Times on Monday that the Kenya attack could have been motivated by a variety of factors. The group's publicly stated reason was to send a message to Kenyan leaders about the presence of its military forces in Somalia, but the sources said it could mark a new chapter in the group's development.
"Despite being severely weakened as an insurgency, al-Shabab's lethality as a terrorist outfit has been fairly constant," one U.S. official said. "Al-Shabab's operational arm may be benefiting from additional resources now that the group is less preoccupied with governance."
"The assault on the Westgate Mall in Kenya was the most prominent in a string of terrorist attacks in Somalia and Kenya stretching back over the past two years," the official said. "It's really too early to say if al-Shabab's latest attack is the beginning of a broader campaign in Kenya or a desperate attempt to compel Nairobi to withdraw its troops from Somalia."
Kenya's foreign minister told CNN that al-Shabab clearly was not acting alone and said the attack resembled previous al Qaeda terrorism.
"This bears the hallmarks of al Qaeda. This is not just al-Shabab. In fact, the leaders are not Somali, as you may have heard. This was al Qaeda. It was a very well-coordinated effort; it was very well planned," Amina Mohamed said.
Separately, U.S. law enforcement authorities have turned up a host of convictions against Somali-Americans since 2007 under a sweeping investigation that federal officials call Operation Rhino and which targets al-Shabab recruitment activities.
Intelligence assessments pointing to al-Shabab's recruiting activities in Minnesota have prompted some influential Republicans on Capitol Hill to play up the threat posed by the group.
The "key finding" of a July 2011 investigative report on al-Shabab by Republicans on the House Homeland Security Committee was that "there is a looming danger of American Shabaab fighters returning to the U.S. to strike or helping Al Qaeda and its affiliates attack the homeland."
"U.S. intelligence underestimated the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda in Yemen's capability of launching attacks here," the report stated. "We cannot afford to make the same mistake with Shabaab."
In 2009, Philip Mudd, then a senior official in the FBI's national security branch, told lawmakers, "While there are no current indicators that any of the individuals who traveled to Somalia have been selected, trained, or tasked by al-Shabab or other extremists to conduct attacks inside the United States, 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 wave of Twitter activity tied to the group and to the Kenya attack this weekend could amplify such concerns.
Several U.S. news organizations picked up on tweets about the Kenya attack claiming to have come from al-Shabab. While some reported that Twitter was working quickly to scrub the activity, al-Shabab apparently was moving equally fast to create accounts on the social media site.
"We received permission to disclose the names of our mujahideen inside #Westgate," the group tweeted on one account, according to a report Sunday by PJ Media, which said al-Shabab proceeded to tweet the names one by one — including Ahmed Mohamed Isse, 22, of St. Paul, Minn.; Abdifatah Osman Keenadiid, 24, of Minneapolis; and Gen Mustafe Noorudiin, 27, of Kansas City, Mo.
Ms. Mohamed, the Kenyan foreign minister, seemed to confirm that claim Monday evening, telling PBS "NewsHour" show that "two or three" Americans were among the attackers, though she put the ages as significantly younger than al-Shabab, calling them "young men, about between maybe 18 and 19."
Kenyan officials have told reporters in Nairobi that the attackers also included Canadian and British citizens.
The Justice Department not respond to a request from The Times for comment, although FBI spokesman Paul Bressen said Monday evening that there was "no confirmation at this point on whether the attackers were U.S. citizens."
Kyle A. Loven, a spokesman for the FBI's Minneapolis field office told The Times that "we're just not in a position to confirm the authenticity of the names that are out there right now."
"We're monitoring the situation as it is occurring in Kenya," he said. "Obviously, it's still ongoing at this time and things remain fluid."
Another source who also spoke on the condition of anonymity told The Times that the Justice Department was likely mum about sending an envoy from the FBI's New York field office to avoid setting off a turf battle with other jurisdictions in the U.S. that may be keen to take the lead on the case.
At the White House, Ben Rhodes, President Obama's national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters that administration officials "do monitor very carefully and have for some time been concerned about efforts by al-Shabab to recruit Americans or U.S. persons to come to Somalia."
"So this is an issue that has been tracked very closely by the U.S. government, and it's one that we'll be looking into in the days ahead," he said.
• Jeffrey Anderson contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.