Al-Shabab Becomes Magnet For Would-Be Jihadists

Fourteen people face terror charges for allegedly taking part in what the government calls "a deadly pipeline" to Somalia. The defendants are accused of recruiting and funding U.S. residents to become fighters in the Somali group called al-Shabab which is linked to al-Qaida.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Here's an important development in a long-running terrorism investigation. It involves an Islamist militia from Somalia and its efforts to recruit young Americans. The group is called al-Shabab, but until yesterday, it wasn't clear how large its effort to recruit in this country had become. The Department of Justice unsealed indictments charging 14 people with helping the group with everything from money to people, and that seems to be only the beginning.

As NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, al-Shabab is becoming a magnet for would- be jihadists.

DINA TEMPLE: About two years ago, the FBI discovered a jihadi pipeline - a system for recruiting and sending Somali-Americans to the battlefields of Somalia. As many as two dozen young men from Minneapolis are thought to have signed up to fight with the Somali militia al-Shabab.

TODD JONES: Early on in our investigation, I think if you've been following it, there have been sort of waves of travelers.

TEMPLE: That's the U.S. attorney in Minneapolis, B. Todd Jones.

JONES: It's young men. It's young people, and they're at difficult points in their lives, just like any normal American teenager. And there are certain hooks that they can draw people into, and they've been used. And that's been a concern for us.

TEMPLE: Originally, the hook was the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. Recruiters convinced the young men that it was their duty to fight. When the Ethiopian troops withdrew, the recruitment pitch changed. The young men were asked to help al-Shabab turn Somalia into a Muslim homeland, a country governed by Islamic law.

Young men from Minneapolis were convinced. They kept boarding planes bound for Somalia. Even as late as last year, after the first arrests in the case had been made, young men were driving to Mexico looking for flights to Somalia.

Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department was watching.

ERIC HOLDER: This is a very disturbing trend that we have been intensely investing in recent years, and will continue to investigate and will root out.

TEMPLE: The sheer volume of arrests and indictments in this one case hints at the scope of the problem. In Minneapolis alone, there are 19 defendants. All of them are of Somali descent, all of them either naturalized Americans or living in this country legally. So far, nine have been arrested, five have already pleaded guilty to terrorism charges and 10 are still at large.

The indictments unsealed yesterday cover three states - Minnesota, Alabama and California. The indictment out of Alabama focuses on the young American named Omar Hamammi. He's rather renowned in jihadi circles for starring in an Internet video that went viral last year. Hamammi is the rapper.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

OMAR HAMAMMI: Along came America to the Saudi sand, exposing to the world all their bloody hands.

TEMPLE: Analysts say what attracted would-be recruits wasn't the rap music. It was what came at the end of the video.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING)

TEMPLE: Hamammi is shown on camera wielding an AK-47, allegedly leading an attack on an Ethiopian convoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

TEMPLE: National Security officials at the White House have been watching Somalia with growing alarm. It's fast becoming the destination of choice for aspiring American jihadis. They typically went to Yemen or Pakistan to get training, but now those places are proving harder to get to.

The Yemeni government has been rounding up foreigners it believes are trying to join terrorist training programs. And in Pakistan, five young Muslims from Virginia who wanted to join the Taliban were recently tried and found guilty of terrorism offenses. They received hefty prison sentences to be served in Pakistan.

Somalia, by comparison, is relatively easy to get into, and al-Shabab is relatively easy to contact. Already this summer, the FBI has arrested three American converts who were not of Somali descent, and yet they were allegedly on their way to join al-Shabab in Somalia.

The attorney general may have had these sorts of men in mind when he spoke yesterday.

HOLDER: These arrests and charges should serve as an unmistakable warning to others who are considering joining or supporting terrorist groups like al-Shabab. If you choose this route, you can expect to find yourself in a United States' jail cell or be a casualty on a Somali battlefield.

TEMPLE: Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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