Details are beginning to emerge about how some dozen young Somali-Americans from Minneapolis ended up in the ranks of a terrorist group in Somalia called al-Shabab.
Some of the mystery surrounding the case cleared Tuesday when the second of two men charged so far pleaded guilty to providing material support to a terrorist organization.
Salah Asman Ahmed told a federal judge that he had attended clandestine meetings in Minneapolis in which people convinced him that he needed to return to Somalia to fight for his homeland.
At the time he was recruited, Ethiopian troops had invaded Somalia. The men who encouraged the young men to take up arms told them that it was their duty — as good Somalis and good Muslims — to fight for their homeland.
More Details Emerge
Ahmed told U.S. District Judge James Rosenbaum that he initially left Minneapolis to fight the Ethiopian troops but ended up in the arms of al-Shabab instead, learning how to use machine guns and how to fight. He said he also helped build a camp for the group.
"I just helped cut trees and stuff at the camp," Ahmed told the judge.
Ahmed provided the most detailed public account to date of how a bunch of Somali-American youth ended up in a terrorist training camp half a world away from Minnesota.
Ahmed said he was approached in October 2007 by people who said, "Ethiopians have taken over the country, so we need to go back to Somalia to fight the Ethiopians." At that time, the Ethiopian army was occupying Somalia. It took whoever recruited the young men just two months to convince the first group to go. They left Dec. 10, 2007. The last group to travel from Minneapolis left Nov. 4, 2008. The State Department declared al-Shabab a terrorist organization in March 2008.
Concerns About An Attack In U.S.
The FBI and other law enforcement officials have been investigating the case for nearly a year. Privately, they have called this the most significant domestic terrorism investigation since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. While most of the missing young men have come from Minneapolis, the FBI has been pursuing similar cases of disappearing Somali youth in San Diego, Boston and Cleveland, among other U.S. cities.
When Ahmed and the first group of young men arrived in Somalia, al-Shabab was indeed fighting Ethiopian troops. But as the Ethiopians withdrew, al-Shabab began concentrating its efforts on toppling the transitional government in Somalia. The pitch to the young men became a need to help install an Islamic republic in Somalia.
Al-Shabab is thought to have links to al-Qaida. Certainly their media operations have borrowed from each other. Some of the al-Shabab leadership also has ties to Osama bin Laden lieutenants. Intelligence officials have been watching with alarm as mid-level al-Qaida operatives have started streaming into Somalia. The concern is that they intend to provide operational help to al-Shabab which, till now, has been a bit of a ragtag fighting force.
For U.S. officials, the concern is that the pipeline that helped Somali-Americans go to East Africa will also allow them to return to the U.S. to launch a possible terrorist attack here. Several of the men who have returned — in addition to Ahmed — have been in protective custody.
At Least Four Dead Recruits
The young men who are still in Somalia are fighting themselves in the eye of a bloody conflict. At least four of the Minneapolis-area recruits have died in the fighting. The first, Shirwa Ahmed, is of particular concern to U.S. officials. He blew himself up in a suicide bombing attack in Somalia last October. It was his death that focused minds at the FBI on the missing youth.
Then, last month, 17-year-old high school student Burhan Hassan was killed in Mogadishu. Days later came news of two more Minneapolis casualties — Jamal Bana and Zakaria Maruf. Parents in the community were devastated, and scared. They want the FBI to find out who has been stealing their sons and arrest them. Then they want the U.S. to launch a rescue of their boys.
While the arrests seem likely, a rescue operation does not.