For years, British authorities have been struggling to disrupt an informal pipeline that funnels jihadists out of the U.K. into terrorist camps around the world. But a rash of disappearances from the Somali community in Minnesota has U.S. intelligence officials worried they are seeing the beginning of America's first jihadi pipeline.
Think of the pipeline as an underground railroad for jihadists — an intricate but informal network of militants who help their brothers in arms not only travel to terrorist training camps, but also to return home.
The return trip home to America is what worries U.S. intelligence. They envision a raft of young men training for jihad and slipping back into the U.S. to launch an attack.
"That, for authorities, is the chilling dimension of this," says Juan Zarate, who was a deputy adviser in the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. "The connectivity of these individuals radicalized in the U.S., traveling abroad to fight, is something we need to be very cautious and careful about."
Good News And Bad News
So far, when it comes to the issue of shipping extremists off to terrorist camps, the U.S. has been comparatively lucky.
Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, addressed the issue a couple of months ago in a speech in Washington, D.C. He says it all gets down to well-integrated immigrant communities.
"Our Muslim community in the United States tends to be much more integrated, much better off financially, much more engaged in the U.S. political system, much less isolated in pockets than, say, countries like the United Kingdom," Leiter says. "And that's the good news."
The bad news, he says, is that the Somali-American community isn't so integrated. There are some 200,000 Somalis in the U.S. today. Most arrived in the 1990s to escape famine and a civil war in their country. Now, a number of their children are traveling back to Somalia and, Leiter says, fighting there.
"We have seen a very, very small percentage of individuals of Somali descent who have come to identify with extremists in Somalia, be it al-Shabab or elements of al-Qaida," Leiter says.
Arrests Coming Soon
Al-Shabab, a militia group with links to al-Qaida, is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. For almost two years, it has been recruiting young Somali men from cities like Minneapolis, Cleveland and Boston, and putting them on the front lines of Somalia's civil war. One of those recruits, a young Minneapolis man named Shirwa Ahmed, blew himself up in a suicide bombing last October.
Samuel Rascoff, a terrorism expert at New York University Law School, says he understands why intelligence officials are worried, but he says the number of recruits — perhaps a couple of dozen — is still relatively modest.
"I don't see this metastasizing into something larger," Rascoff says. "I think it is a worry in so far as it is the first time we've seen inside the United States anything resembling the problem in the United Kingdom and Western Europe for a couple of years now."
The FBI is not so sanguine and is pushing hard to break up this pipeline. One agent says this is the biggest domestic terrorism investigation in this country since Sept. 11. Sources familiar with the case tell NPR there could be major arrests as soon as this month.