LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
In Australia, authorities have arrested four men they say were planning a suicide attack on an Australian army target. They say the men trained in Somalia with a militia group called Al-Shabab. The news from Australia got the attention of the U.S. intelligence community. That's because for more than a year now investigators have been looking into the disappearance of more than two dozen young Somali-Americans from the Minneapolis area.
They've also turned up in Somalia, fighting alongside Al-Shabab. It's a story we have been following for months - the recruitment pipeline taking Somali-Americans from this country to terror groups overseas. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has the story.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Think of the pipeline as an underground railroad for jihadists — an intricate but informal network of militants who help their brothers in arms travel to terrorist training camps. The fear is that the pipeline could run both ways and those recruits could attack here.
Mr. JUAN ZARATE (National Security Council): And I think that, for authorities, is the chilling dimension of this.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Juan Zarate was a deputy director of the National Security Council under President Bush.
Mr. ZARATE: The connectivity of these individuals radicalized in the U.S., traveling abroad to fight, I think is something we need to be very cautious and careful about.
TEMPLE-RASTON: So far, when it comes to the issue of shipping extremists off to terrorist camps, the U.S. has been comparatively lucky.
Mr. MICHAEL LEITER (Director, National Counterterrorism Center): (Unintelligible) quick reasons for that.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Michael Leiter is the director of the National Counterterrorism Center. He addressed the issue a couple of months ago in a speech in Washington.
Mr. LEITER: Our Muslim community in the United States tends to be much more integrated, much better off financially, much more engaged in the US political system, much less isolated in pockets than, say, in countries like the United Kingdom. And that's the good news.
TEMPLE-RASTON: He said the bad news 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.
Mr. LEITER: We have seen a very, very small percentage of individuals of Somali descent who have come to identify with extremists in Somalia, be they al-Shabab or potentially elements of al-Qaida.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Al-Shabab is a militia group with links to al-Qaida. It's on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations, and for almost two years now it has been recruiting young Somali men from cities like Minneapolis and Cleveland and Boston, and putting them on the front lines of Somalia's civil war. One of those recruits from Minneapolis blew himself up in a suicide bombing last October.
Sam Rascoff is a terrorism expert at New York University Law School. He understands why intelligence officials are worried, but he says the number of recruits — perhaps a couple of dozen — is still relatively modest.
Mr. SAM RASCOFF (New York University Law School): I don't see this metastasizing into something larger.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And is this the next big recruitment worry for us in this country?
MR. RASCOFF: Well, I think it's a worry in so far is it is the first time that we've seen inside the United States anything resembling like the problem that's been observed in the United Kingdom and in Western Europe for a couple of years now.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI is not so sanguine and is pushing hard to break up this pipeline. One agent told me this is the biggest domestic terrorism investigation in this country since 9/11. Sources familiar with the case tell NPR there could be major arrests this month.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
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