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Charges Filed In Case Of Missing Somali-Americans
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Charges Filed In Case Of Missing Somali-Americans

National Security

Charges Filed In Case Of Missing Somali-Americans

Charges Filed In Case Of Missing Somali-Americans
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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/120769776/120769714" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Federal investigators filed charges against eight people in connection with the disappearance of young Somali-Americans who allegedly left the U.S. to fight with a terrorist group in Somalia. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston talks about the investigation.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

In what's been described as the biggest domestic terrorism investigation since 9/11, federal authorities charged eight men who they say recruited young Somali-Americans to fight with a terrorist group in Somalia.

Investigators believe that more than two dozen young Somali-American men left home to join Al-Shabaab, a group on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. Some have been killed.

The investigation has been going on for more than a year and will continue. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston broke this story last January and joins us in a moment to tell us about this case in particular and about investigations into homegrown terrorists in general.

How are Americans recruited? Is there a pipeline where Americans go overseas in the name of jihad? Have any been trained and come back to the U.S.? How many people do we know to be involved? If you have questions, we're going to focus on this case for a while. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

One programming note, if you tuned in to hear the second part of our conversation on rationing in health care, pros and cons, we'll get to that topic again soon.

Later in the program, an update on the federal shield law making its way through Congress and how it would affect reporters, and your letters. But first, Dina Temple-Raston joins us from New York. Nice to have you on the program, as always.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Thanks. It's great to be here.

CONAN: And what do we know about these recruiters?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, what we know came out of these unsealed charging documents. It happened yesterday. A Minneapolis judge unsealed these documents, implicating eight more people in this Minneapolis case. There had already been six people who were implicated in it. So that makes 14 total, which is really an enormous number. We don't normally have terrorism - this many people involved.

Here's what we do know. There were some people in Minneapolis who had connections to this Somali militia you mentioned, Al-Shabaab, and they used those connections to get a couple of dozen Somali-American kids to Somalia to train in terrorist camps there. And that in itself is unusual, too, a couple of dozen kids. One agent called it the biggest domestic terrorism investigation since 9/11 because so many people seemed to be involved, and they aren't finished yet.

CONAN: Well, these 14 men, are they Somali, Somali-Americans?

TEMPLE-RASTON: They are a bit of a mix of the two. There are some Somali-Americans. Some were here as citizens. Some were here with green cards. Some were here as legal residents. But there's no immigration issue here. There's not in any of these cases, there were no immigration issues.

CONAN: And they were embedded, if you will, in the Somali-American community there in Minneapolis?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, I guess I would say - embedded makes it sound like they somehow were sent here, and in fact, they were already part, very much part of the community. I mean, the two dozen or so young men who left had been here since they were toddlers. They were really good high school students. Some of them were in community college and had great goals.

So this wasn't something like a small band of disaffected people that you might have seen. These were really people who were mainstream in the Somali community.

CONAN: Why would a group go to all of the trouble to recruit soldiers in Minnesota to go all the way to Somalia? Surely, they can find fighters closer to hand.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that's a very good question. I mean, there is a certain amount of cache in having foreign fighters fighting with you, and that's certainly part of it. The other part of it is was increasingly, now, a lot of these jihadi groups don't have money, and a lot of these foreign fighters either pay their own airfare to get there, buy their own guns, pay for the training. And on top of that, each side gets this cache of having somebody who was foreign to be in the battle.

CONAN: And you say they provided their own plane tickets and, in some cases, their own weapons. How were these people recruited?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that's what they're trying to uncover now. We know bits and pieces of it. What I find interesting in looking through the charging documents is the way they were recruited was very common, sort of the way that we've seen recruitment work in the past. And I'll be specific here.

Apparently, this all started when the young men would get together to talk about politics, and in particular about the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. And a cooperating witness told the FBI that he and the other men met at this Minneapolis mosque in 2007 and decided to make some phone calls to some contacts in Somalia, essentially offering up their services as foreign fighters. And there was a lot of discussion on how doing this would prove that they were good Muslims and that they were good Somalis, and to be honest, this is really pretty standard recruiting technique here in the United States for these kinds of operations.

CONAN: It's - to tell you the truth, it's not unique to Somalia or to this decade or, indeed, to this century. You can think of people who joined the IRA from this country in years past.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly.

CONAN: So as they're thinking about joining these overseas battles, there's a mosque involved. There's some religion involved. Yet these people were, as you say, raised in this country since - either born here or since they were very young. Weren't they integrated into American society? We keep hearing that that's a big difference between American Muslims and, well, people in Britain, for example.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly, and that's a good point, although let me slice it a little bit finer. As a general matter, immigrants who come here are very well-integrated, and this is one of the reasons why we haven't had the same problems as the United Kingdom has with people going to fight Jihad.

That said, there are two main groups that just don't emigrate - don't integrate very well here in the United States. One of them is the Yemenis, and the other happens to be the Somalis, and there are lots of reasons for this. One, they tend to be a bit poorer than most of the immigrants who come here. They tend to remain very connected to their home country, and specifically to the politics of their own country. They tend to not get very involved with politics here in this country.

And then on top of that mix, there is another sort of layer in Minneapolis, which is a lot of the young men there, who were brought here from the civil war in Somali and grew up here, were brought here by single-parent families headed by - households headed by mothers. And so this made them easy prey, really, for recruiters who were essentially the male role models in their lives.

CONAN: Is it - as you say, it is most unusual for Americans, American citizens or people here with green cards, to go abroad to fight in the name of jihad.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, well, very much. I mean, we're seeing more and more of this recently, which is really quite stunning. I think what's different about this particular case in Minneapolis and what has intelligence officials worried is how efficient and effective it was.

We've never seen something - the numbers that we've seen in this case, for example, two dozen young Somali-Americans going, 14 people so far implicated in some sort of network. This is a really big operation, and this is - what worries them is this is the beginnings of the first American sort of jihadi pipeline, a particular way to get to the battlefield from the United States. And this has been a U.K. problem, and now the concern is that it's a U.S. problem, too.

CONAN: And is there any reason to believe - you mentioned the other community that is particularly vulnerable, people believe, is Yemenis. There's now -Saudi forces are fighting in Yemen, as well. There's a conflict underway there, as well. Is there any reason to believe that Yemenis are going over to their country?

TEMPLE-RASTON: No, and I don't want to sort of cast dispersions on either group in any way. It's just sort of a more of a sociological phenomenon. I will say, though, that the Lackawanna Six, which were among the first young men that we know of who actually went to an al-Qaida camp, this was before 9/11, were from the Yemeni community in Lackawanna, in Upstate New York.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston about what's being described as the largest counterterrorism case since 9/11. There are 14 people identified thus far in an investigation that involves two dozen or more young Somali-Americans going to fight in Somalia, and some of them have been killed there.

If you have questions about the case or questions about homegrown terrorism in general, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Let's start with Ali. Ali's calling us from Columbus.

ALI (Caller): Yeah, Neal, I am just asking a question about these young Somalis. I think it is a very sad story, a very devastating story, and I'm sure the parents of those young men was sent back overseas home to fight and join with terrorist groups. But can we know the men behind those recruiters who live in the United States are trying to convince these young people, to brainwash and persuade them to go back to, you know, Somalia and join the terrorist groups and to fight.

And the other question I have is, you know, those guys still in U.S. and persuading the people to go back to fight, you know, why they themselves, you know, just could go there if they wanted to, and they're just taking the young kids from their parents and, you know, persuading to go Jihad or some stuff like that. And if we know�

CONAN: Well, let's see if we can get some�

ALI: �can we�

CONAN: Hold on, Ali, let's see if we can get some answers from Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, interesting, I think Ali said he was from Cleveland. There's an investigation going on now about some possible missing kids from Cleveland in the Somali community there, related to this, perhaps not exactly the Minnesota network, but have found a way themselves to go and fight for Al-Shabaab.

There is a brainwashing aspect to this going on, and this is what concerns people is that brainwash aspect, that these are naive kids, and in the case of the Minneapolis case, there was actually a man who had fought with Al-Shabaab, and he talked about how wonderful it was, how fun it was, and convinced the kids to that effect.

CONAN: The glory of war. Ali, I wonder, how is this affecting you and other people in the Somali-American community?

ALI: To be honest with you, Neal, first of all, I'm going to say thank you to you. I not only listen a lot to your program, of TALK OF THE NATION, but this, you know, issue, I just hear from the news. It's devastating, you know, the Somali community with respect to the parents. We know some of the young people, family, are family headed to the only woman. Maybe their fellows already killed in the peril in 1991, or maybe the fellows are back home, not here, and, you know, it is devastating us. You know, in Columbus, Ohio, Dina said Cleveland, but I'm not from Cleveland. I'm in Columbus.

CONAN: In Columbus, okay.

ALI: All the business places, restaurants, you know, every true Somali I encounter somewhere, they're talking about this issue. It is a very devastating and killing the heart of the community and college and high school, the students, people, you know, in the homes. And we - I think, some of the - you know, our mosque leaders are not trustable. You know, they're just calling our kids to go to the mosque to learn Islamic religions and again persuading them to go back home to fight. I think that is a very devastating issue, and everybody's so upset.

CONAN: Ali, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it. We're going to continue talking with Dina Temple-Raston about this investigation in particular and about homegrown terrorism in general. How many people are involved? How are people recruited? Why do they go? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking about terrorism charges unveiled in Minnesota yesterday, the men recruiting Americans to fight in Somalia. Dina Temple-Raston broke this story for NPR and has been covering this and other cases of homegrown terrorism as NPR's counterterrorism correspondent.

If you'd like to speak with her about this investigation or the threat of domestic terrorism in general, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Let's get Ron on the line, Ron with us from Milpitas in California.

RON (Caller): Yeah, one of the questions I had is how - what makes this terrorism? So, for example, if France was invaded by Germany in 1940 - in, you know, in the '30s, and French-Americans decided to go back and defend their country, would that also be terrorism? How does that work?

TEMPLE-RASTON: The reason why this is terrorism is because Al-Shabaab is on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations. They have a link -although it's tangential, they do have a link with al-Qaida. And the real concern here is - besides all these kids who seem to be taken from their parents and taken to Somalia and actually die on the battlefields there - is the possibility that they would get some sort of terrorist training and then come back to the United States and launch something here.

And, no, there hasn't been any indication that's happened, but - Al-Shabaab is not a very well-financed organization, and if it does have ties with al-Qaida, it's within the realm of possibility that al-Qaida could say, look. We want, you know, these three Americans that you've trained, and we'll give you the following funding for these people, and we'll use them for our own ends. This is what the big concern is.

CONAN: There's no�

RON: So - sorry, I just was wondering if, like, it wasn't Al-Shabaab, some other group of people going from the Somali community here, it would be okay?

TEMPLE-RASTON: If it wasn't a group that was on the U.S. State Department list, yes.

RON: Right. Right.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Although, you know, if they were minors or they didn't have permission from their parents to go, there'd be other issues.

CONAN: There would be other issues involved, yeah.

RON: And then my other question was, you know, given that these are minors, this is, you know, obviously, particularly heinous. Has there been any thought to using folks like famous Somalis or people who the youth might respect to kind of convince them against going, perhaps somebody like - there's a famous Somali-American rapper named K'Naan, who might have an opinion on it.

TEMPLE-RASTON: I don't know. I know that one of the things that has been going on in the Somali community is mothers are not letting their boys out after school, and they're not letting them go to mosque because they're so worried.

I mean, literally, there are stories of young men who came home and said I'm going to do my laundry and never coming back - I mean, literally mothers suddenly realizing their sons are gone without having any inclination that they were leaving.

CONAN: And some of them were minors, some of them were not. But the - do we know what has happened to these more than two dozen?

TEMPLE-RASTON: We don't. We know that either five or six of them have already been killed in the fighting in Somalia, which is quite shocking. And some of the parents found out simply by trolling through photographs on the Internet and finding them, or they'd get a call from Al-Shabaab that said your son just died a martyr.

CONAN: Ron, thanks very much for the phone call.

RON: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email, this from Omar. As a Somali-American, I believe the perpetrators of this should be brought to justice. With that said, it is easier to talk about issues black and white. What is missing in this discussion is the misguided American foreign policy during the Bush administration, which led to the invasion of Somalia. If Americans did not give money and ammunition to the Ethiopians, do we think we would be having this discussion?

(Soundbite of laughter)

TEMPLE-RASTON: I think I'm going to stay away from foreign policy questions, though I will say that in speaking to a lot of the people in the Somali community in Minneapolis, American foreign policy is one of the big issues. And certainly, you can see that with the African Union forces and the Ethiopian forces going into Somalia, it created a brew that was for recruiters to say to young men, you know, are you a real Somali or not? Are you going to sort of step up or not? And in that respect, that certainly was part of this equation.

CONAN: And that raises the broader question - not just in Somalia, but in other places, as we mentioned, as well - of this idea of dual nationality. Yes, these may be American citizens, but they may also regard themselves - at least partly - as Somalis, as other people in other people in other times may have regarded themselves as Irish or German or, in the Spanish civil war, as fighting for a cause there, too.

Nevertheless, there's this idea of dual nationality, and this is an idea that is sort of counter to the American idea of the melting pot.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, indeed. And I think that that gets played upon a lot in some of these jihadi recruitment sort of pushes. You know, are you now just an American, or are you really of your roots? And this is definitely something that was played upon among these young men in Minneapolis.

CONAN: Are you authentic? So it's about nationalism, as well as about religion and about radicalism.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. And actually, that's how this case really started. I think this - the original recruitments were much less about Islamic fundamentalism or jihad than they were specifically to have this nationalist fervor and go and save your brothers in Somalia. And then when the Ethiopians actually withdrew, the recruiters had to change their argument.

Their argument then became Al-Shabaab is there to set up an Islamic state in Somalia so that Somalia will once again be, you know, a calm state without chaos, and you need to help with that. So they actually had to change the argument.

CONAN: And just in regard to the earlier caller's question about the involvement of al-Qaida, we do know that al-Qaida is involved in Somalia. Their links to Al-Shabaab are, as you say, tenuous.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Tenuous in that they have - apparently, some of Al-Shabaab's leaders have actually guarded some al-Qaida operatives who the United States wanted for various terrorist attacks. I think the embassy bombing, if I have this right, some of the embassy bombing suspects were hidden by leaders of Al-Shabaab.

The other thing that was a little bit frightening, too, that was uncovered just recently was that there was an al-Qaida operative out of Pakistan named Nabhan. He was killed two months ago by a U.S. helicopter attack. He had actually trained some of these Minneapolis kids, and to think that this most-wanted al-Qaida operative in Pakistan is suddenly in Somalia training Americans, certainly that's worrisome.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Let's go to Gene, Gene(ph) with us from Miami.

GENE (Caller): Hello. Neal, one of the reason (unintelligible) I think that Al-Shabaab prefer to recruit over here is the reentry. After 9/11, it is hard for them to send people over here. But if they recruit American or Somali with residence, they could come, go back, go there, get trained and come back, you know, without raising much suspicions.

CONAN: And that's the nightmare scenario, Dina Temple-Raston, that some of your contacts have been worried about.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly, although I have to be clear here that in the case of Al-Shabaab, there has not been any indication that they want to do something here in the United States or they have bigger aspirations than in the area of Somalia that they are trying to take care of now, that they are fighting for now.

That being said, you know, these groups often start very small and then have broader aspirations later. And certainly, that is one of the concerns, is that these kids might come back.

In fact, at least four of these kids have gone and come back after getting training. Then, they've all been - you know, they're either in custody, or they're in protective custody, or the FBI knows where they are. So, you know, they have come back, and that is a concern.

CONAN: Let's go next to Hussein(ph), Hussein calling us from Cambridge in Massachusetts.

HUSSEIN (Caller): Yes, sir, Neal. I really enjoy your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

HUSSEIN: I am a fan of that. What I would like to mention is that Somalia is a failing state, and the problem that we have is the, what we call in Somalia, or the ex-colony of Italy. Is there any way we can make a distinction between what's happening with Al-Shabaab in the southern part of Somalia with respect to Somaliland, which enjoys peace and solemnity?

CONAN: There is a part of what used to be that Italian colony of Somalia and used to be part of the united country of Somalia. And you're right, that's Somaliland, up in the northern part of the country, that has been relatively peaceful. Nevertheless, this is in dispute, as you might imagine, with any number of those in Somalia proper, or in Southern Somalia, who might not regard that as legitimate. All of this remains to be worked out, but a failed state, I think Somalia is the definition of a failed state. Thank you very much for that, Hussein. Appreciate it.

Here's an email from Mike. How do we get underage kids out of the U.S. and all the way to Somalia? Fake IDs? Put on boats? How do they do it?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, now, by underage kids, some of them were under 21, and they had passports. So they were - they used their legitimate passports to go overseas. They would fly to - basically they would get the plane tickets in Minneapolis, and then they would fly to - Amsterdam and Nairobi and then be met in Nairobi and then taken into Somalia.

CONAN: So none of these are people who are unable to travel on their own. They were all at least over the age of 18?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, they were. Although it's interesting, because when they first made - started discussing going with the recruiter, there were - they say in the charging papers that they released yesterday that two of the young men were too young to go, and it was decided that they would have to wait a year before they went.

CONAN: Is there any indication that there is more in the pipeline? You were talking about Cleveland before.

TEMPLE-RASTON: There is some indication that there are some - well, there are some other investigations going on in Boston. I said Cleveland, I misspoke. I should have said Columbus and San Diego. And these are three places that are -also have grand juries looking at what might be going on there.

CONAN: And how - you've reported on a lot of domestic terrorism cases in the past eight-plus years. How does this case compare? The size of it, for one thing, is unusual.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The size is unusual, the effectiveness of the recruiting campaign - that may be because they had a very receptive audience. But still, the effectiveness of the campaign is quite amazing, the scope of it. It actually does turn out that this is nationwide. In other words, that there are little - I don't want to say cells because that sounds so sinister.

CONAN: Instead of�

TEMPLE-RASTON: Little - little networks that are doing this on their own in various Somali communities around the United States. That's very meaningful and very different from what we've seen in the past. We don't have this kind of -we haven't in the past had this kind of network. They've really been disconnected people who get something in their minds and then decide to go and do it. And usually it's a very small group.

CONAN: And there are several people who have emailed questions about how does this affect U.S. interests. And obviously these are American persons, as the definition goes, or American citizens who are being lured or recruited to go abroad. These are - the group is on the list of terrorist organizations assembled annually by the State Department. But other than that, is it not legitimate for people to go to fight in their country's battle?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, I suppose it is, except if you're fighting with a - on the same side of a group that has been deemed a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. I think that changes the equation quite a bit.

And what's interesting about this too is because they are American citizens, it's really complicated the calculus for the United States. Do you remember when there was a lot of discussion about the piracy in Somalia?

CONAN: Sure.

TEMPLE-RASTON: We still talk about it. But when it was a really big deal about six months ago, one of the things that was under discussion, according to my sources, was perhaps using some sort of missile or something to bomb some areas where these pirates would be. And one of the reasons that this was decided against was they didn't know where these American kids were and they didn't want to accidentally have that problem. Now, how far along the pipeline this discussion went I really am not clear. But the fact that these Minneapolis kids actually figured into the equation I think is meaningful.

CONAN: We're talking with Dina Temple-Raston, NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, with us from New York.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

In many other cases, and not just from Britain but other European countries as well, there were cases of foreign fighters, people in Britain, France, Germany, going - Netherlands as well - going to fight U.S.-backed forces and U.S. forces directly in Iraq. This is a phenomenon that is growing worldwide.

TEMPLE-RASTON: It is indeed. And I think this is also what is concerning intelligence officials here in this country, that this is sort of a new wrinkle in homegrown domestic terrorism in the United States.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Abdi(ph), excuse me, on the line. Abdi with us from Tempe in Arizona.

ABDI (Caller): Yes. I'm so happy to be in your show first. And second thing, I just want to admire your guest. She has more knowledge. And I agree with her whatever she said.

My point is, you know, we know there's a lot of problems in Somalia. We know there's a lot of kids that will be influenced to go over there. How come the Western countries, especially America, U.K., all those countries, are not willing wholeheartedly to support the Somali government so they could eliminate all the threats that al-Shabaab is causing in Somalia, especially southern Somalia - Somalia, Mogadishu, all those areas, so these kids who never had a chance or a place to go and those people will never had any chance to influence those kids to go to Somalia.

CONAN: Well, again, you're getting into foreign policy issues, Abdi. And I'm not sure that's Dina's forte in this. Nevertheless, there is a�

ABDI: Yeah.

CONAN: �there is a Somali government of sorts that's recognized by the African Union�

ABDI: Yes, yes.

CONAN: �and that is also recognized by some Western countries as well. It controls very little territory and has very few friends. Most of the country is controlled by tribal leaders and by those sometimes identified by the admittedly pejorative term warlords. And it is a situation of great chaos. And, indeed, much of the territory now is controlled by this al-Shabaab.

ABDI: Yeah. Because the government doesn't have a financial - they cannot pay their police or their - I mean, the military. They cannot afford to pay financially those people whom they would like to see them fighting for them, to the country, and eliminate all these threats. So al-Shabaab has more money, more financial than the government. They get money from Yemen, from Jordan, from Middle East, from Scandinavians, and nobody is trying to eliminate all this. Nobody wants to support the government, but everybody wants to see peace in that country. They just have lip service (unintelligible)�

CONAN: All right, Abdi. Thank you very much. We appreciate it.

What do we know about the finances involved? You suggested, Dina, that indeed al-Shabaab is not extremely wealthy and indeed is looking for recruits who can pay their own way to get into the country and indeed sometimes provide their own weapons.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, in fact, this is a phenomenon that we're seeing more and more with these various terrorist groups, is that they'd much prefer people come with cash in hand as opposed to empty-handed and saying, you know, I'd like you to train me. Many of the people who are going into al-Qaida camps, for example, in the frontier regions of Pakistan are having to pay their own way to actually get the training, so that's not so unusual. What's interesting here is that some of the financing was picked up through the kids working odd jobs, some of it was donations. And in some cases the recruiters actually - or the financiers actually lied and said that these kids were going to go to Saudi Arabia to study the Quran, and they were trying to raise money to do that.

CONAN: Dina Temple-Raston, thank you very much for your time and for your reporting. We appreciate it.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

CONAN: Dina Temple-Raston, NPR counterterrorism correspondent, with us from New York.

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