The Obama administration is watching more than just pirates in Somalia. Officials have been tracking a Somali terrorist group and are weighing whether to strike some of its training camps. The fear is that the group, al-Shabab, could join forces with al-Qaida and target the U.S
A senior government official tells NPR that because the U.S. military is worried about al-Shabab, all options are on the table — including a military strike. The official said the most likely scenario would be an attack from the air, not boots on the ground.
Until now, the group has concentrated its efforts in Somalia, but officials, including National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter, worry about al-Shabab's future intentions.
"As a general matter, the focus has remained in Somalia. But I am not in a business where I am willing to bet the farm that it will remain that way," Leiter said in a speech before the Aspen Institute earlier this month.
The al-Shabab camps have a kind of open-door policy: They don't just train al-Shabab recruits; they will welcome anyone who arrives claiming to fight for jihad. Two recent suicide bombings targeting South Korean tourists in Yemen were linked to the al-Shabab camps.
Not everyone thinks a military strike will solve the problem.
"The calculus always has to be, on a military attack, are you better off after it than you were before," says Richard Clarke, the former National Coordinator for Counterterrorism. He had wanted the Clinton administration to bomb al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan years before the Sept. 11 attacks. "If the answer is no, you've made things worse for Americans in general, and you have raised the risk to the United States or United States embassy or United States citizens, then it is probably not something you want to do."
J. Peter Pham, a professor at James Madison University who has studied al-Shabab, also worries that if the U.S. decided to launch a military strike, it would backfire. Right now, he says, al-Shabab isn't particularly popular in Somalia, but a U.S. attack could change that.
"A bombing run or other attack risks allowing them to wrap themselves up in the mantel of nationalism, and that might actually bring up the level of public support for them," Pham says.
Al-Shabab doesn't have widespread support in Somalia for a number of reasons. When the group tried to outlaw a narcotic called khat in one of the towns it controlled, for example, it sparked a riot. Al-Shabab responded by quietly rolling back its edict. The group also encountered resistance when it tried to make women completely veil themselves.
The point is: Somalis like al-Shabab not for its ideas, but for the relative security it provides. Where al-Shabab seems to have developed a loyal following is among the Somali diaspora, including in the United States.
The State Department put al-Shabab on its list of terrorist organizations last year. Some critics say the listing ended up giving the group prestige it didn't deserve.
Al-Shabab means "The Youth" in Arabic, and in many ways, that describes the militia perfectly. The members are young and portray themselves as a kind of jihadi hip. The recruiters who try to convince new soldiers to come into the fold look like young men who have just barely entered their teens, and the group's recruitment videos are filled with hip-hop music.
"We're simply fighting for the sake of Allah, and we're defending the religion of Allah," one young man says in a video. "We have a global mission. That's why America puts us number 41 in the terrorist list."
That's not a translation of an al-Shabab video — it was actually produced in English, clearly for a Western audience. The FBI believes such videos — along with recruiters on the ground — helped convince some young Somali-Americans to join al-Shabab. At least two dozen young men from Minneapolis, which has the largest Somali community in the U.S., have gone missing over the past two years.
That raises another problem for U.S. planners mulling a military strike: If American citizens are on the ground, could they carry out a military attack? Killing American teenagers from Minneapolis could be a political nightmare.
Back in 2002, a suspected American al-Qaida operative named Kamal Derwish was killed by a U.S. Predator strike in Yemen. The death was so controversial, the CIA and the military still haven't admitted that Derwish was killed that day.