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Somali Militia Recruitment in US

In Washington, a Senate committee held a hearing Wednesday on Somalia, in particular, recruiting in America by the Islamist Somali militant group al-Shabaab. The US government has declared al-Shabaab a terrorist organization.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, opened the hearing, saying, "Today, we are going to focus on what appears to me to be the most significant case of home grown American terrorism, recruiting based on violent Islamist ideology. The facts, as we know them, tell us that over the last two years, individuals from the Somali community in the United States, including American citizens, have left for Somalia to support and in some cases fight on behalf of al-Shabaab."

Lieberman says there are "ideological, tactical financial and also personnel links between al-Shabaab and al Qaida." He says the militia sheltered some of those "responsible for the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania." The Connecticut senator says even the al-Qaida second-in-command has praised al-Shabaab and called for its support.

Lieberman describes recruiting of a Somali-American with tragic consequences. "In the most graphic and deadly example of a direct connection between the Somali-American community and international terrorism, Shirwac Ahmed, a naturalized United States citizen, living in the Minneapolis (Minnesota) area, returned to Somalia within the last two year and killed himself and many others in a suicide bombing last October."

The FBI says Ahmed was "radicalized in Minnesota." Lieberman says, "He's probably the first US citizen to carry out a terrorist suicide bombing."

Among those testifying at Wednesday's committee hearing was Andrew Liepman, deputy director for intelligence at the National Counterterrorism Center, who says, "Let me stress, we don't have a body of reporting that indicates US persons who have traveled to Somalia are planning to execute attacks in the United States.… But we do worry that there is a potential that these individuals could be indoctrinated by al-Qaida while they're in Somalia and then returned to the United States with the intention to conduct attacks. They would In fact provide al-Qaida with trained extremists inside the United States."

Liepman says that terrorist recruiters seek young Somalis believed to be despondent and disenfranchised.

"Sophisticated extremist recruiters target these individuals, who lack structure and definition in their lives. The recruiters subject them to religiously inspired indoctrination to move them towards violent extremism. They target vulnerable young men, many of them refugees, who came here as small children or who are the children of immigrants."

Liepman says these young Somalis may be "torn between their parents' traditional ethnic tribal and clan identities and the new cultures and traditions offered by American society."

He says that "isolation, marginalization, perceived discrimination and frustrated expectations" contribute to the Somali-American community being more susceptible recruiters.

However, Liepman adds, "Let me stress…we are not witnessing a community-wide radicalization among Somali-Americans. When I speak of the Somali-American community I don't mean to generalize."

Somali expert Ken Menkhaus of Davidson College also testified, saying al-Shabaab may have hit its "high water mark in 2008" in battling the recent Ethiopian occupation in Somalia. "In the eyes of most Somalis," he says, "Shabaab was a legitimate national resistance to a foreign occupation. Shabaab was seen by many Somalis as freedom fighters, not terrorists, even by Somalis who found their radical policies appalling and their rumored links to al-Qaida very worrisome."

Al-Shabaab has said it would target American interests, following direct US attacks on its leadership. It's considered the most powerful armed group in Somalia.

However, Menkhaus says, "Recent developments are working against Shabaab." These include the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, the resignation of an unpopular president and the Djibouti peace accord. This has led to a greater voice from moderates. Menkhaus says, "Shabaab has been deprived of its major raison d'etre and now faces growing resistance from Somali militias allied with the new unity government. Shabaab also faces internal divisions, including tensions between hardcore members and those who joined the cause mainly to rid their country of a foreign occupation. Put another way, not all Shabaab members are committed jihadists, making it problematic to label the entire group terrorists," he says.

He says there is such a strong link now between Somalis in Somalia and those in the Diaspora that "extensive travel to Somalia and financial and other interactions by Somali-Americans with their home country should not constitute, therefore, a high risk profile."

Menkhaus says there are more than enough young armed men available for recruits in Somalia itself, without al-Shabaab recruiting in the United States. But he says there are other reasons, such as Somali-Americans' familiarity with computers and the Internet. He also says a "young Diaspora recruit is upon arrival in Somalia entirely cut off socially and therefore, in theory, easier to isolate, indoctrinate and control for the purpose of executing suicide bombings. Were this not the case it would be much less risky and expensive for Shabaab to simply recruit locals."