Americans Who Joined Somali Terrorist Group

In al Qaeda, Post-9/11 Domestic Anti-Terrorism Efforts on November 24, 2009 at 10:27 am

Charges against Americans accused of joining a terrorist group in Somalia:

Federal officials on Monday unsealed terrorism-related charges against men they say were key actors in a recruitment effort that led roughly 20 young Americans to join a violent insurgent group in Somalia with ties to Al Qaeda.

With eight new suspects charged Monday, the authorities have implicated 14 people in the case, one of the most extensive domestic terrorism investigations since the Sept. 11 attacks. Some of them have been arrested; others are at large, including several believed to be still fighting with the Somali group, Al Shabaab.

The case represents the largest group of American citizens suspected of joining an extremist movement affiliated with Al Qaeda, senior officials said. Many of the recruits had come to America as young refugees fleeing a brutal civil war, only to settle in a gang-ridden enclave of Minneapolis.

The men named on Monday face federal charges including perjury, providing material support to a terrorist organization and conspiring to kill, maim, kidnap or injure people outside the United States.

Law enforcement officials are concerned that the recruits, who hold American passports, could be commissioned to return to the United States to carry out attacks here, though so far there is no evidence of such plots.

“The potential implications to national security are significant,” said Ralph S. Boelter, the special agent in charge of the Minneapolis field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He added that the nationwide inquiry would continue with the cooperation of many Somali immigrants and that more arrests might be coming.

The disclosures are the government’s first public account of a recruitment operation that it says has largely focused on Somali-American men from the Minneapolis area. Those young men included Shirwa Ahmed, 26, who carried out a suicide attack in northern Somalia in October 2008, becoming the first known American suicide bomber. Since then, at least five other recruits have been killed in Somalia, relatives and friends say, and four defendants have entered guilty pleas.

The court documents, which included unsealed indictments and criminal complaints, provide chilling details about the experience of the recruits, who began to enlist in Al Shabaab in September 2007. They attended training camps in Somalia run by Somali, Arab and Western instructors, who taught them to use machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades and indoctrinated them with anti-American and anti-Israeli beliefs, according to one complaint. Two of the Minneapolis recruits took part in an ambush against Ethiopian troops, and many others were involved in combat, according to the documents.

One of the fighters, Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax, later returned to Minneapolis and emerged as a recruiter, officials said. A 32-year-old cab driver and divorced father of two, Mr. Faarax had sustained a leg injury while fighting with Al Shabaab, a senior law enforcement official said.

In the fall of 2007, he attended a meeting at an unnamed Minneapolis mosque in which participants spoke by telephone with co-conspirators in Somalia about the need for fighters, according to the complaint.

Mr. Faarax told potential recruits he had experienced “true brotherhood” while fighting in Somalia, that to “fight jihad will be fun” and “not to be afraid,” according to the complaint.

He is estranged from his family, a close relative said in an interview, and “seemed to have developed another family at his place of worship.”

Another man accused of recruiting, Abdiweli Yassin Isse, encouraged others to join the fight in Somalia, raising money for their travel through a fake charity, according to the complaint.

A third man, Mahamud Said Omar, is accused of helping to finance the recruitment. Officials said Mr. Omar, who was arrested in the Netherlands on Nov. 8, conspired with nine of the recruits, paying for trips to Somalia and providing some of the Minneapolis men with hundreds of dollars to buy AK-47 rifles.

Most of the young Somali-American men suspected of joining Al Shabaab had come to the United States as small boys or teenagers, after the 1991 collapse of Somalia’s last fully functioning government.

These young refugees largely settled in the Minneapolis area, struggling to support single-mother households in a poor urban neighborhood that was rocked by the violence of Somali street gangs. But many overcame the obstacles in their paths, making it to college and charting paths as engineers, medical technicians and businessmen.

From Minnesota, these young men showed little interest in the political events of their homeland, relatives and friends recalled. That changed in December 2006, when the Ethiopian military invaded Somalia, routing an Islamist insurgency. The invasion, backed by the United States, prompted an outcry among Somalis in the diaspora.

After the Ethiopians dismantled the Islamist insurgency, its youth and militia wing — known as Al Shabaab, which means “youth” — regrouped in southern Somalia and began a new insurgency intended to topple the occupation and install an Islamic state. In its Internet-driven propaganda, Al Shabaab aggressively recruited foreign fighters from the West, refashioning a formerly nationalist cause into a religious movement that carried the endorsement of Al Qaeda.

Friends of the men who left described them as having been driven by a mix of nationalist and religious fervor. Some wanted to defend their country against foreign invaders; other saw this “defensive jihad” as their religious duty, the friends said.

Interest in the movement appeared to wane as news spread last summer that some of the recruits had been killed.

In early June, Somalis in Minneapolis learned that 17-year-old Burhan Hassan, a gifted student who had once dreamed of attending Harvard, had been shot in the head in Mogadishu, the Somali capital. The shooting happened shortly after he had told his mother, by phone, that he was planning to defect from Al Shabaab, the boy’s uncle Osman Ahmed said.

A senior law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Hassan appeared to have been killed by other members of Al Shabaab.

Since then, four of the other Minneapolis recruits have also died, including a 27-year-old convert to Islam, said friends of the recruits who received phone calls informing them of the deaths.

Through DNA matches, federal officials have confirmed only the deaths of Mr. Ahmed, the suicide bomber, and Jamal Sheikh Bana, a 20-year-old engineering student.

Still, there are indications that enlistment continues.

Last month, the Nevada Highway Patrol stopped a rental car carrying five young Somali men who said they were en route to a wedding in San Diego.

A lawyer with knowledge of the case said three of the men soon crossed the Mexican border, en route to an airport. The group included two of the men accused Monday of recruiting, Mr. Faarax and Mr. Isse, a friend of the men said. The men are still at large.

The friend, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the F.B.I.’s investigation had made an underdog out of Al Shabaab, which is aiding recruitment.

“They are reinforcing it,” the friend said.

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