The FBI has arrested or indicted 14 Somali-Americans in two cities as part of a sweeping investigation in the recruitment of young men for a terrorist group in Somalia, Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday. The people arrested are thought to have recruited and raised money for a Somali militia called al-Shabab.
"These indictments and arrests –- in Minnesota, Alabama, and California –- shed further light on a deadly pipeline that has routed funding and fighters to al-Shabab from cities across the United States," Holder said at a news conference.
He said the arrests and indictments should serve as a warning that "if you choose this route, you can expect to find yourself in a U.S. jail cell or a casualty on the battlefield in Somalia."
The arrests are just the latest turn in a long-running investigation into the disappearance of young men from a number of U.S. cities. NPR first reported on the case two years ago, after more than two dozen young Somalis from the Minneapolis area had been recruited and sent to Somalia by the group. Some of the young men who traveled to Somalia have since returned to the U.S. At least six of the Minneapolis Somalis who joined al-Shabab are thought to have been killed in the fighting there.
One of the indictments names Omar Hammami, a young man from Alabama who joined al-Shabab several years ago and starred in a recruitment video.
The FBI has been tracking people they suspected might be recruiting for or financing the operation for months. Fourteen people already had been either arrested or indicted in the case. Thursday's announcement doubled that number and provides evidence that al-Shabab has managed to draw young men from a number of U.S. cities, including San Diego and Columbus, Ohio.
Earlier this week, the FBI announced that it had arrested a young man in Chicago just before he boarded a flight that they said would have eventually taken him to Somalia so he could offer himself as a fighter to al-Shabab. It's the second time in less than a month that federal authorities have arrested an American who allegedly wanted to join forces with the group.
Al-Shabab is an Islamist militia reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is battling the transitional government in Somalia for power. It controls, or at least holds sway over, much of southern Somalia.
The group's leaders want to topple the existing government in Somalia and rule the country under Shariah law. U.S. authorities are concerned because al-Shabab has links to al-Qaida, and they worry that Somalia could become a new safe haven for the group.
Al-Shabab, which means "the youth," recently came to prominence when it claimed responsibility for two bombings in Kampala, Uganda, during the World Cup soccer finals. The group, which has largely limited itself to attacking domestic targets within Somalia, said it launched the suicide attacks that killed more than 70 people because Uganda was training Somali government soldiers. The concern has been that they would branch out further and perhaps attack the U.S., dispatching the young Americans.