WASHINGTON — The Somalia-based Shebab terror group linked to Al-Qaeda is actively recruiting Muslim Americans for terror strikes on the United States, a US lawmaker warned Wednesday.
“We must face the reality that Al-Shebab is a growing threat to our homeland,” said Republican Representative Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security committee.
Wednesday’s hearing was the third in a controversial series looking at possible threats posed by homegrown Islamist extremists.
Critics charge that King’s focus on Muslim Americans plays into the hands of extremists who say Washington is wrongly targeting Islam in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist strikes.
Tens of thousands of Somali immigrants and their US-born children live in places like the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, in the midwestern US state of Minnesota.
According to King, senior US counterterrorism officials told the committee they fear that a Shebab fighter “may attempt an attack here.”
King mentioned Shirwa Ahmed, a Minneapolis resident who is “the first confirmed American suicide bomber in our history,” as well as Omar Hammami, identified as a Shebab commander “who was raised a Baptist in Alabama, and who has repeatedly threatened the US homeland.”
King said the Shebab “has successfully recruited and radicalized more than 40 Muslim Americans and 20 Canadians, who have joined the terror group inside Somalia.”
Neither Al-Qaeda “nor any of its other affiliates, have come close to drawing so many Muslim Americans and Westerners to jihad,” he said.
The Shebab rebels are locked in a protracted battle with Somalia’s weak, Western-backed government for control of the Horn of Africa nation.
According to the US Justice Department, 18 people have been charged in a scheme to recruit Somalis from the Minneapolis area to travel to Africa and join the Shebab. Eight defendants have been arrested, and six have pleaded guilty.
Fourteen people, including several US citizens, were indicted by a federal grand jury in Minneapolis in August 2010 on terrorism charges for traveling to Somalia and joining the Shebab, which Washington considers a terror group.
St. Paul police chief Thomas Smith told the committee that police began an outreach program to the community in 2004, and expanded it in 2009 after news that some 20 area Muslim men went to fight for the Shebab in Somalia.
The police-run programs for Somali American youth include after school study programs, organized sports and camping trips.
“We strongly believe that by creating these safe… opportunities for Somali American youth and the police to interact, that trust, cooperation, friendship and mentorship will increase, and opportunities for Al-Shebab to recruit and radicalize our youth will decrease,” he said.
Smith said that, as a result of this trust, in 2009 the mother of a 14-year-old Somali American boy told him she was concerned that her child “was becoming recruited and radicalized.”
“This information was turned over to our FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force and resulted in a significant investigation,” he said.
Also in 2009, police obtained information from the community that lead to breaking up a multi-state prostitution ring run by Somali gangs.
King earlier denied a request by Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, a Democrat and the sole Muslim in the US Congress, to testify in the hearing.
“My congressional district includes the largest Somali community in the United States,” Ellison wrote in a letter to King, first reported on MinnPost.com.
Ellison said he wanted to talk about the collaboration between police and the Somali-American community in Minneapolis, which he said is “an international model for cultural absorption and radicalization mitigation.”
Ellison broke down in tears while offering emotional testimony in a similar hearing King organized on homegrown Islamic terrorism in March.