RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
There is a new development in a story we've been following all this year - the disappearance of Somali Americans from Minneapolis. Some two dozen young men left their homes in Minnesota over the past two years and turned up in Somalia. There they trained with a terrorist group. This week, U.S. forces killed one of the FBI's most wanted al-Qaida militants during a commando raid in southern Somalia. And NPR has learned that he was one of those who trained the young men from Minnesota. Dina Temple-Raston has our report.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: When FBI agents capture a terrorism suspect, one of the first things they do is pull out mug shots to try to identify possible members of al-Qaida. That happened earlier this year. That's when some of those young Somali Americans who trained in Somalia returned to Minneapolis.
Intelligence officials tell NPR when agents flipped to a picture of one al-Qaida operative, several of the young men recognized him. His name was Saleh Ali Nabhan. He's the man killed in this week's commando raid. The Minneapolis boys said he'd been one of their trainers.
Professor BRUCE HOFFMAN (Georgetown University): Usually people like Nabhan are jacks of all trade.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Hoffman is a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.
Prof. HOFFMAN: They're particularly skilled, as Nabhan was, in the fabrication of vehicular bombs, particularly ones that are used for suicide attacks.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Vehicular bombs are car bombs. That's what landed him on the FBI's most wanted list. Officials say he rigged up a car bomb in 2002 to blow up an Israeli-owned resort in Kenya. Now the FBI's concerned about the Minnesota connection. Agents fear that Nabhan taught Somali Americans in the camps how to be suicide bombers and that they might come back and attack in the United States.
It isn't a wild theory. One of the Minneapolis boys who returned from Somalia pleaded guilty to terrorism related charges in July. His court appointed attorney said the young man had been recruited to become a suicide bomber. Another young Minnesotan drove a car bomb into a government compound in northern Somalia last November. He and Nabhan were in the training camps at the same time.
So that's the Minneapolis part of this. There's another reason why Nabhan, the man killed in the commando raid, was important. He helped give al-Qaida a foothold in the horn of Africa. Again, Bruce Hoffman.
Prof. HOFFMAN: Al-Qaida's hallmark has always been both opportunistic and as talent spotters. And I think they saw a group that was in a zone that was already rife with instability and chaos.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The group Hoffman mentions is called al-Shabab. It's focused on overthrowing the Somali government. It's also the group that recruited the young men from Minnesota. Nabhan's ties to the group helped bring al-Shabab and all-Qaida together. His death this week may hobble al-Qaida in Somalia.
Prof. HOFFMAN: And his elimination, I think, is something that will not sever the links between al-Shabab and al-Qaida but certainly will fray them.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The operation that unfolded in the Somali desert on Monday was the stuff of the movies. U.S. intelligence officials say that Special Forces helicoptered into a remote part of the Somali desert and fired on a convoy of trucks racing across the sands. When the shooting stopped, officials identified Nabhan's remains. The DNA test results on the others killed in the attack haven't come back yet. U.S. officials say they haven't ruled out that some of the Minneapolis young men might've been among them.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
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