| Issue 370
and Regional Affairs |
WASHINGTON, February 27, 2009 — As people
crowded into the capital for Barack Obama's inaugural celebration,
senior counterterrorism officials huddled in the White House situation
room, frantically trying to unravel intelligence about a possible attack
By Tuesday afternoon, as Obama took the oath of office, the threat of a
terror plot by the Somalia-based al-Shabab organization had been
debunked, but the flurry of activity underscored growing worries about
this Islamic militant group.
"I think they are a serious problem, and I don't think that we should be
glib and take it lightly," said Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant
secretary of Defense for African Affairs. "Are they the ones that are
going to plan the next major terrorist attack in the United States and
carry it out? Probably not. But could they provide some of the foot
soldiers for it? Yes."
The State Department considers al-Shabab a terrorist organization with
links to al-Qaida, something the group denies. Al-Shabab, which means
"The Youth," has been gaining ground as Somalia's Western-backed
government crumbles. The group's goal is to establish an Islamic state
U.S. counterterrorism officials say they detect a disturbing pattern,
one that mirrors al-Qaida methods and could spawn homegrown insurgents
and suicide bombers in the U.S.
Counterterrorism officials suspect that al-Shabab is recruiting young
men from Somali communities in Minnesota and other Midwestern states,
luring them back to their home country for terror training and creating
cells of fighters who could travel to other countries, including the
United States, to launch attacks.
Four months ago, a young Somali man left Minneapolis to become a suicide
bomber. He detonated a bomb he was wearing, one step in a series of
coordinated attacks targeting a U.N. compound, the Ethiopian consulate
and the presidential palace in Somaliland's capital, Hargeysa.
It was the first known time a U.S. citizen was a suicide bomber.
In response, the FBI stepped up efforts to reach out to community
leaders in the Minneapolis area, where young Somali-American men have
disappeared and are believed to have traveled to Somalia to fight with
militants. FBI spokesman E.K. Wilson said that since the disappearances,
the bureau has worked to expand relationships with community elders,
religious leaders and others active in the local Somali population,
which numbers about 80,000.
"We want them to come forward with concerns about their young people,"
Wilson said. "We share the same concerns. We want to help, and we need
people with concerns to come forward with information."
U.S. officials aren't sure who is recruiting for al-Shabab, or whether
recruits trained in Somalia have been returning to the United States.
That uncertainty increased the concerns about the inaugural weekend
intelligence reports. Counterterrorism officials described the time as
tense as they faced a threat that appeared to grow in credibility as the
At the National Counterterrorism Center in northern Virginia, law
enforcement, intelligence and military authorities worked to dissect the
threat, which emanated from a suspect in Uganda. At the White House,
outgoing Bush administration officials and their incoming Obama
counterparts monitored the situation while preparing for the
The most alarming aspect, said one former Bush official, was that they
knew the inauguration would be a good target for any terrorist group,
because of the huge crowds and political significance. And there already
had been several cases that linked individuals, including Somalis, in
the United States to terrorist acts in Somalia. Those included:
_ Daniel Maldonado, a New Hampshire native, trained at a terrorist camp
in Somalia alongside al-Qaida members in efforts to help overthrow the
Somali government. He was captured by Kenyan military while trying to
flee Somalia and is serving a 10-year prison sentence in the U.S.
_ Rupert Shumpert, who was from Seattle, was indicted on counterfeit
charges in a case that also concluded he spoke often in support for
jihad. He fled the country and went to Somalia, where he was killed last
_ Shirwa Ahmed, a young Somali-American, left his family in Minnesota
and blew himself up in one of the coordinated suicide bombings in
Somalia last Oct. 29.
Whelan, who has been a senior policy adviser on African issues at the
Pentagon for 14 years, said the al-Shabab threat is complex and
evolving, potentially becoming more serious as al-Qaida or other Islamic
ideologues try to make inroads into the Somali communities in the U.S.
"There has been a lot of movement back and forth (to Somalia) for a long
time, and that leaves us open to the potential that weaknesses will be
exploited by those that have jihadist aims," she said. "We need to be
very careful because we have seen that we are internally vulnerable
because of the Somali Diaspora."
Federal authorities won't say whether they've tracked any of the Somali
youth returning to the U.S. after traveling to their homeland and
receiving terror training. But FBI Director Robert Mueller expressed
concern Monday about efforts to recruit Somali youth and asserted that
the FBI believes others are being "radicalized."
In remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations, Mueller said it's
particularly unfortunate that parents who came to the United States to
escape violence in their home country would see their children drawn
back into violence, calling it a perversion of the immigrant's story.
He said it "raises the question of whether these young men will one day
come home, and, if so, what they might undertake here."
The al-Shabab threat also has attracted attention in Congress, where the
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is planning
to hold a hearing on the rise of al-Shabab.
Source: The Associated Press