Law enforcement worried about Somalis
deputy national political editor
March 11, 2009 08:31 PM
By Bryan Bender and Shelley Murphy, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- A Somali-American community leader warned a US Senate panel today that Boston may be among a 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 today 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 it is trying to undermine the struggling nation’s prospects for peace.
At the Senate hearing, the law enforcement officials said they believe 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 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 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 the 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.
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 today 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, following the 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.