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Security Officials Warn Of Somali Recruiting
WASHINGTON, March 12, 2009 – A Somali-American community leader warned a Senate panel yesterday that Boston may be among half a dozen cities where youths are being recruited to travel to Somalia to fight alongside a radical Islamic group with links to Al Qaeda.
Top US law enforcement and intelligence officials told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security that a "small but significant" number of Somali-Americans from several US cities have traveled to Somalia since 2006 to join Al-Shabaab, which was designated a terrorist organization by the State Department last year.
But the officials did not specifically mention Boston, and the head of the Boston FBI office and officials with the Boston-based Somali Development Center said yesterday they have not heard of any local recruitment efforts.
"We are not aware of anyone in the Boston area involved in any recruitment activities to send someone to Al-Shabaab," said Warren T. Bamford, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Boston office.
Community activists in Boston said that most Somalis condemn Al-Shabaab because they believe it is trying to undermine the struggling nation's prospects for peace.
At the Senate hearing, the law enforcement officials said they believe that the initial motivation of youths who returned to Somalia was to defend their native land from an invasion by neighboring Ethiopia two years ago, but that they could be indoctrinated and trained to return to the United States to mount terrorist attacks.
The officials pointed to signs that some Somali community leaders and radical websites have relied on religious appeals - including a proclamation last month by Al Qaeda's second-in-command that Al-Shabaab's gains were "a step on the path of victory of Islam" - while preying on a sense of isolation among some Somalis in the United States.
"They've become pawns in a game larger than themselves," said the Senate committee chairman, Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent.
National law enforcement officials first became alarmed when a 27-year-old Somali-American college student from Minneapolis blew himself up in a suicide attack in Somalia last October.
Officials said they now believe "tens" of others have recently traveled to Somalia to take up arms with the group, which controls a large swath of the country's south and has introduced suicide attacks, roadside bombs, and other tactics to undermine the Somali government and attack Ethiopian targets. The group has been linked to Al Qaeda operatives responsible for bombing US embassies in Africa during the 1990s as well as terrorist leaders hiding in Pakistan, the panel was told.
"We are concerned that if Somali-American youth can be motivated to engage in such activities overseas . . . fellow travelers could return to the US and engage in terrorist activities here," Andrew Liepman, the deputy director of intelligence at the National Counterterrorism Center, told the panel.
Osman Ahmed, a Somali-American community leader who was invited by the committee to testify, said that special attention should be given to Minneapolis, Seattle, Boston, and Columbus, Ohio, and he called for task forces to reach out to Somalis.
"There are youth programs that in some cases have hidden agendas," he testified.
Ahmed is president of a tenants group in Minneapolis, home to the largest Somali community in the United States and home to as many as 20 youths the FBI believes have left for Somalia. He has been sounding warnings on the issue since a nephew went to Somalia last fall.
Federal law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation, said yesterday that in addition to the four cities named by Ahmed, they are investigating whether there are links to Al-Shabaab in San Diego and Portland, Maine.
Ahmed said in a later interview that he believes that at least two Somali youngsters from the Boston area traveled to Somalia last summer and may have been recruited by Al-Shabaab.
However, staff members at Somali Development Center's offices in Jamaica Plain, Chelsea, and Springfield said yesterday they were unaware of any local recruiting efforts or of any youths or young men returning to their homeland.
Bamford of the FBI also said he has no confirmation of any youngsters going to Somalia from Boston to fight. He said agents have spoken to local Somalis about the recruitment of Somali youths in Minneapolis and urged them to come forward if they see similar efforts in New England, he said.
"Some young men have gone over to Somalia so we have to be aware of that," Bamford said in a telephone interview. "We can't just sit back and hope it doesn't happen. We have to go out and make the community aware of the concern and make parents aware of what happened elsewhere. They need to be good parents and watch out for their kids."
Boston has a small, tight-knit Somali-American community of about 5,000, who have arrived since 1992, after US intervention in the country's humanitarian crisis, according to the Somali Development Center. Several thousand more live elsewhere in New England, including Portland, Maine, according to the center, which was established in 1996 to provide social services.
Nationwide there are an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 Somali-Americans. Youths are considered particularly vulnerable to religious or other community leaders who might sympathize with Al-Shabaab, which means "youth" in Arabic.
"Somali families tend to be large, mostly with single parents who are working to make ends meet," testified Abdirahman Mukhtar, a Somali immigrant and youth program manager at the Brian Coyle community center in Minneapolis. "Somali families for the most part live in high-density housing in the lowest-income neighborhoods."
According to government figures, Somalis have an unemployment rate of 17 percent, twice the national average.
The Bush administration's tacit support for Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia in 2006 also fueled anger among Somali communities in the United States and abroad.
"Even Somalis with close links to the US and many of those with US citizenship were scathing in their criticism of the US," Ken Menkhaus, a political science professor and East Africa specialist at Davidson College in North Carolina, told the panel.
Since then, "the number of individuals we believe have departed for Somalia is comparatively larger than the number of individuals who have left the United States for other conflict zones around the world over the past few years," Philip Mudd, a top FBI official, told lawmakers.
The officials, however, stressed to the committee that they do not detect a community-wide radicalization, and that the overwhelming majority of Somali-Americans want to contribute to American society but need better schools, housing, and healthcare to fully integrate here.
Abdillahi Abdirahman, president of the Somali Development Center's board in Boston, said that he held a community meeting about two months ago at the FBI's request to warn parents about recruitment efforts, but that he has not heard of any recruiting from parents or from young people who hang out at his Roxbury cafe, Butterfly Coffee, or at the center's after-school programs.
"I am not aware of any kid who has been missing or any kid has been recruited," he said.
Community activists pointed out that Somalis in Massachusetts are scattered across the state and hail from different backgrounds, which would hinder recruitment. For instance, the Somali Bantus, a minority group, suffered widespread discrimination in their homeland and have no interest in returning, they said.
"People in Boston don't need war, that's why we come to America," said Hawa Kulmiye, an outreach worker at the center's Chelsea office who immigrated more than seven years ago. She, too, said she was unaware of anyone leaving the Boston area to fight in Somalia.
"We don't have enough food, no government," said Kulmiye, referring to Somalia. "They kill each other. Nobody goes back there."
Maria Sacchetti of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com
Source: The Boston Globe