Another Minneapolis man has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in connection with a broad investigation into the disappearance of more than two dozen young Somali-Americans from Minnesota over the past two years.
Kamal Said Hassan pleaded guilty in a Minneapolis court Wednesday. He was one of a handful of young men from the U.S. who traveled to Somalia to join and fight for a militia there called al-Shabab. When Hassan returned to Minneapolis last winter, he apparently lied to the FBI about where he had been. He said that after he had trained with the group, he went to Yemen. He had, in fact, fought alongside al-Shabab in East Africa.
This is the third indictment in the case so far. Federal investigators are closing in on suspects they believe have recruited a roster of young men to join al-Shabab's rank. The State Department put al-Shabab on its list of terrorist organizations last year, so any association with them amounts to providing material support to a terrorist organization.
U.S. intelligence officials say al-Shabab's top leadership has ties to al-Qaida, though they are quick to add that al-Qaida's sway over the group's actions is limited.
The latest plea comes on the heels of two others in the past three weeks. In the earlier cases, a federal grand jury indicted Abdifatah Yusuf Isse and Salah Ahmed for providing material support and conspiracy, among other things. Both men subsequently pleaded guilty and have provided investigators with some detail of how al-Shabab was able to woo young Somali-Americans to jihad.
Ahmed told the court that he had been recruited "to fight the Ethiopians" and said he had met with other men in the winter of 2007, just before he left, in hopes of convincing them to join him. He said that recruiters were "helping us buy tickets to go to Somalia." Some of the young men, he said, were raising the money they needed for plane tickets about $2,000 from friends in the Somali-American community.
Law enforcement officials have been cagey about discussing the investigation, aside from calling it "the most significant domestic terrorism investigation in this country since the 9/11 attacks." They have been looking into the possibility that al-Shabab recruiters actually set up a pipeline an underground railroad of sorts that funneled Somali-Americans to the front lines of the civil war in Somalia. Until now, these kinds of pipelines have been largely a European phenomenon. This would mark the first time such a jihadi network has been established in the U.S.
The chief concern for U.S. intelligence is that the pipeline runs two ways — and that the young Somalis will train with al-Shabab and then possibly return to the U.S. to attack here. So far, there is no reason to believe that has happened.
As many as four young men (including Hassan) have returned from Somalia. Officials close to the case said none of them came back to the U.S. with plans to attack, and most were trying to put their experiences in Somalia and the brutality of a civil war behind them.
That said, officials in Australia just foiled a plot to attack a local military base; two of the would-be attackers in that case had trained in al-Shabab camps. That marks the first time that the group has leveled violence outside of Somalia. U.S. intelligence officials with knowledge of the case said it is possible that al-Shabab trained the young men but never suggested they target anything in Australia. That could be something the recruits came up with on their own after they returned home, they said.
Playing On Ties To Their Homeland
While most of the missing young men left from Minneapolis, the FBI has been investigating similar cases in San Diego, Boston and Cleveland, among other cities.
Generally, the teenagers and twenty-somethings lured to Somalia are believed to have been recruited in small groups in meetings outside their local mosques. They met in restaurants, college canteens, Somali shopping malls and coffee shops and were offered tickets to their homeland so they could go and fight.
Recruiters appear to have played on the young men's sense of nationalism as well as their sense of adventure to get them to secretly board flights to Africa. At the time the first recruits are thought to have left, Ethiopian troops had invaded Somalia to crush the Islamic Courts Union. The group's pitch to the young men was that they had to save their homeland from invaders.
As the Ethiopians withdrew, al-Shabab began concentrating its efforts on toppling the transitional government in Somalia, telling the young men that they needed to help install an Islamic republic there.
As the fighting got more fierce, officials close to the investigation said, the young men's text messages home indicated that they began to have second thoughts. Some managed to come back to the U.S. Others were killed in the melee. So far, four of the young men who went to Somalia from Minneapolis have been confirmed dead.
Relief Among Somalis In Twin Cities
Each new indictment in the case has brought a surge of relief in the Somali community in the Twin Cities. The concern for months has been that without arrests, more young men would go missing.
Some mothers forbid their sons to attend mosque out of concern that they might be ensnared by recruiters. Others told their boys to come right home after school, worried that the recruiters could be anywhere among them, and that the only safe place for their children was behind closed doors at home.
The fact that al-Shabab has set its sights on the Twin Cities to recruit fighters isn't surprising. Minneapolis-St. Paul is home to the largest Somali community in the U.S. some 70,000 live in Minnesota and the community is reasonably isolated.
The grand jury is expected to unseal additional indictments in the case in the coming weeks.