A series of arrests in the United States this week sheds light on a growing concern of law enforcement officials. Foreign terrorist organizations like al-Shabab in Somalia are receiving assistance from U.S. citizens. In some cases, those citizens are traveling abroad for terrorist training and are joining armed insurgencies. Experts say many of these citizens are ideal targets for terror recruitment.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested 26-year-old Shaker Masri in Chicago on Tuesday, only hours before he was scheduled to board a flight for Somalia. He had told an FBI informant that he planned to travel to Somalia or Afghanistan to join an armed insurgency.
One day after Masri's arrest, the FBI charged 14 naturalized U.S. citizens from Minnesota, California and Alabama with providing material support to al-Shabab, a group the U.S. government has designated as a terrorist organization.
The U.S. Justice Department says two of the people indicted are already fighting for al-Shabab in Somalia, and that they appear in online videos for the group.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said these latest arrests signal a dangerous and growing trend in the United States.
"We are seeing an increasing number of individuals, including U.S. citizens, who have become captivated by extremist ideology and have taken steps to carry out terrorist objectives, either at home or abroad," he said.
Thomas Mockaitis, a terrorism expert at DePaul University, says that although it is a relatively recent development in the United States, other countries have been dealing with domestic terrorists for some time.
"It's not exactly as new as you might think," he said. "It's very similar to what happened in Britain in the 1980s and '90s."
Mockaitis says that during that time, many young men from Afghanistan and Pakistan living in Britain returned to fight the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan.
Now, he says, Somalia is the destination of choice for those seeking to carry out a holy war.
"Somalia has become what Afghanistan was in the 1980s," said Mockaitis. "It is a failed state and it's a hotbed for [not only] conflict, but also the training and export of extremist activity."
Through methods that include recruiting in U.S. Somali communities and creating Internet videos promoting their cause, Mockaitis says al-Shabab is able to reach young men who might never have traveled to Somalia.
"Many of these people are in fact the children of refugees. They were probably born in Somalia or born soon after they [i.e., their mothers] came to the United States," he said. "And they are not particularly in touch with their parents. And yet, neither are they particularly attracted to or accepted by mainstream American culture. So there is this kind of double alienation that makes them particularly prone to recruitment."
Although some analysts say this might provide some insight into the motivations of those recruited in the large Somali community in Minnesota, for example, they say it does not explain what might have motivated terrorism suspect Shaker Masri, who was born in Alabama, lived in Chicago, and who has family in Jordan.
Masri was arrested after several conversations with an FBI informant.
Although authorities say Masri acted alone, terrorism analyst Thomas Mockaitis says most terrorism recruits find solidarity in a community of like-minded individuals.
"I'm not persuaded, and actually there is some research to suggest that people are not prone to self-radicalization, as we imagine," he said. "They don't just log on the Internet and suddenly become a jihadist. They often are persuaded by somebody they know - a family member, a friend, whatever the case may be."
Speaking to reporters at the Justice Department, Attorney General Eric Holder said he wanted to send a message to those arrested this week and others who might be charting a similar course.
"While our investigations are ongoing around the country, these arrests and charges should serve as an unmistakable warning to others considering joining or supporting terrorist groups like al-Shabab," he said. "If you choose this route, you can expect to find yourself in a U.S. jail cell or a casualty on the battlefield in Somalia."
As many as six suspected militants from Minnesota have already died in the fighting in Somalia.