FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III on Monday praised the partnerships that the bureau has built with its overseas counterparts but said much more work remains in building the trust of ethnic communities in the U.S. whose help is needed to fight terrorism.
Mr. Mueller said during a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations that the bureau must “redouble our efforts” in building relationships with communities whose members may become radicalized.
“We understand the reluctance of some communities to sit down at the table with us. They come from countries where national police forces and security services engender fear and mistrust,” he said. “Oftentimes, the communities from which we need the most help are those who trust us the least.”
As an example, Mr. Mueller pointed to the case of Shirwa Ahmed, a 27-year-old Somali immigrant who returned to his home country and carried out a suicide bombing in October.
Ahmed, who lived in Minnesota, is thought to be the first American citizen to have carried out such an attack.
“I think it’s hard to say, but we certainly believe he was recruited here in the U.S. and we believe there may have been others that have been radicalized, as well,” Mr. Mueller said.
Mr. Mueller declined to offer any more specifics, citing an ongoing investigation. But about 20 young Somali men reportedly have left the U.S. to fight or train with Islamic extremists as part of Somalia’s ongoing civil war. Most of the young men were from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, where there is fear that terrorists are recruiting young men for suicide missions in Somalia, The Washington Times reported in December.
Ahmed Elmi, chairman of the Somali-American Community Association in the Washington area, said Somali community leaders throughout the U.S. are concerned about what happened in Minnesota and are eager to help the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies deal with the issue.
“We tell Somalis: ‘If you know something, you should report it immediately. It’s a crime if you don’t. If you don’t know the language or feel uncomfortable, go to Somali community agencies for help,’ ” Mr. Elmi said.
On the first Tuesday of each month, a half-dozen Somali community leaders from throughout the U.S., including from Minnesota, have a one-hour teleconference with the Department of Homeland Security, Mr. Elmi said.
“We’ve spoken with FBI agents in Virginia, and we are hoping to do something similar with the FBI,” he said.
Mr. Mueller pointed to the costs of the present situation in human terms.
“The prospect of young men, indoctrinated and radicalized within their own communities, and induced to travel to such countries to take up arms - and to kill themselves and perhaps many others - is a perversion of the immigrant story,” Mr. Mueller said.
“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.”
Mr. Mueller’s speech suggested more success in partnering with law-enforcement agencies in other countries.
Among the first public remarks regarding the FBI’s role in responding to last year’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Mr. Mueller described the work of Special Agent Steve Merrill, the legal attache in the bureau’s New Delhi office.
Mr. Merrill was on his way to a cricket tournament at the time of the attacks, which left more than 170 dead and 300 injured.
“The moment he learned of the attacks, Steve made his way to Mumbai. All he had were the clothes on his back, his BlackBerry, and his cricket gear,” Mr. Mueller said. “He immediately made contact with his Indian counterparts and got to work. No red tape, no turf battles - just first responders, working shoulder to shoulder in a time of crisis.”
Mr. Mueller said Mr. Merrill stayed in touch with the bureau’s foreign counterparts, coordinated the arrival of the FBI’s Rapid Deployment Team and ultimately helped rescue Americans trapped inside the besieged Taj Hotel.
With help from the Indian government, the CIA, the State Department, British MI6 and New Scotland Yard, the FBI had “unprecedented access to evidence and intelligence,” Mr. Mueller said.
“Agents and analysts conducted more than 60 interviews, including that of the lone surviving attacker. Our forensic specialists pulled fingerprints from improvised explosive devices,” he said. “They recovered data from damaged cell phones, in one case by literally wiring a smashed phone back together.”
He said the bureau also disseminated intelligence to its partners in the U.S. and around the globe that could have helped stop a second wave of attacks had it been planned.
“Through our international training programs at the FBI academy, we are on a first-name basis with thousands of officers around the world - a brotherhood and sisterhood of partners,” he said. “And in a time of crisis, that familiarity - that friendship - fosters an immediate and effective response.”
Though he declined to speculate about whether a similar attack would take place in the U.S., Mr. Mueller said the Mumbai attacks, carried out by 10 terrorists, “reminds us that terrorists with large agendas and little money can use rudimentary weapons to maximize their impact.”
• Willis Witter contributed to this report.