U.S. officials are warning that Islamic extremists are attempting to radicalize and recruit Somali Americans. An American college student became the first U.S. citizen suicide bomber when he killed himself in Somalia last year. And U.S. authorities are investigating what role Islamic extremist groups might have played in the disappearance of more than a dozen Somali American teenagers and young men. A U.S. Senate panel held a hearing on the issue Wednesday.
"We are going to focus on what appears to me to be the most significant case of homegrown American terrorism recruiting based on violent Islamist ideology," Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who calls himself an independent Democrat, said as he chaired the hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
At issue is the disappearance of more than a dozen Somali American teenagers and young men, who are believed to have traveled to Somalia. U.S. authorities are investigating role Islamic extremists might have played in their unexpected departure.
A college student from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Shirwa Ahmed, blew himself up in Somalia last October in one of a series of bombings attributed to the al-Shabaab group, which has close ties to al-Qaida. The U.S. State Department designated al-Shabaab a terrorist organization in February 2008.
The Deputy Director for Intelligence at the National Counterterrorism Center, Andrew Liepman, says a small but significant number of Somali American youths are being radicalized by Islamic extremists. He told the Senate panel that a number of factors make young Somali Americans vulnerable to radicalization.
"Among Somali Americans, the refugee experience of fleeing a war-torn country combined with isolation, perceived discrimination, marginalization and frustrated expectations as well as local, criminal, familial and clan dynamics, make some members of this community more susceptible to this sort of extremist influence," he said.
The Somali community in the United States is estimated to number as many as 200,000 people.
Liepman expressed concern about the potential for radicalized Somali Americans to be indoctrinated by al-Qaida while in Somalia, and then return to the United States with the intention of conducting terrorist attacks.
One Somali American, Osman Ahmed, told the committee that his nephew, Burhan Hassan, a student at the University of Minnesota, disappeared on November 4. The family discovered that his passport, laptop computer and cellphone were gone, and found a receipt for $2,000 in airfare.
Ahmed said he believes Hassan and others were recruited by al-Shabaab because they have no recourse once they arrive in Somalia. "They could be used for anything they want. They could be trained or forced to become suicide bombers in Somalia and they can do it out of desperation. For many of them, Burhan for example, have no idea where he could go for help in Somalia. This the first time he has been to Somalia in his life. These are basically the main reasons of why al-Shabaab is recruiting from Western countries," he said.
J. Philip Mudd, a top security official with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, says he believes young Somali Americans are not so much recruited by extremists in Somalia as they are drawn to the East African nation on their own accord. "I don't see people out there saying, 'Can we have another 10 Americans?' I think it's a simple story of people wanting to fight for their country or go live in a different social or religious environment," he said.
Some experts believe that the threat of al-Shabaab recruiting from Western nations may be waning now that an Islamist government has replaced a U.S.-backed Ethiopian occupation in Somalia.
Political scientist Kenneth Menkhaus is an expert on Somalia at Davidson College in North Carolina. "Somalis who were willing to support [al-]Shabaab when it supported the main source of resistance to Ethiopian occupation appear uninterested in supporting [al-]Shabaab in its bid to grab power and impose its extremist policies on Somalia. [Al-]Shabaab may well have hit its high-water mark in 2008, and now faces declining support and possible defections. If so, this is good news. It would mean the threat of [al-]Shabaab recruitment among the diaspora would be less of a threat in the future," he said.
Menkhaus called on U.S. authorities to do more to reach out to the Somali American community as they investigate the role of al-Shabaab and the whereabouts of missing young Somali Americans.
He noted that some members of the community are reluctant to talk to law enforcement officials because they had difficult experiences dealing with police in Somalia or out of fear of being investigated by U.S. immigration officials.