The threat of an attack in the U.S. by the Somali Islamic group al-Shabaab is a “real cause for concern” as it strengthens ties with al-Qaeda, said Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
“They carry out their training together, they supply each other and they’ve made it clear that they are now linked up,” the New York Republican said in an interview before his committee’s third hearing on Muslim radicalization today.
The Somali group became more of a concern for U.S. counterterrorism authorities after 14 people were charged last year with providing it with money and other assistance. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been probing how Somali Americans in Minneapolis and elsewhere have been recruited to train and fight with the group.
Al-Shabaab has recruited more than 40 Muslim Americans and 20 Canadians, King said at the hearing. Over the past two years, instances of funding and recruiting for the group have made up the largest number of “homegrown terror cases filed by the Justice Department,” he said.
Thirty-eight al-Shabaab-related cases in the U.S. have been unsealed since 2009, King said.
Al-Shabaab’s increasingly evident partnership with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group behind the attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound plane on Dec. 25, 2009, makes it even more of a threat, King said. The al-Qaeda affiliate also claimed responsibility for the October 2010 attempted bombings of air cargo flights headed for the U.S. from Yemen.
Today’s hearing by King’s panel focused on al-Shabaab’s attempts to recruit U.S. residents and the al-Qaeda ties. The committee’s Democrats and some Muslim groups have said that the radicalization hearings distort the fact that most U.S. Muslims are law-abiding.
Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the panel’s senior Democrat, said the committee should broaden the scope of the hearing beyond al-Shabaab while still examining the radicalization of Somali Americans.
“When you single out a particular group, you are not giving what’s required from an oversight standpoint,” he said in an interview before the hearing.
Thompson said that while al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda have links, it “remains to be seen” whether the groups are jointly trying to recruit Americans or attack the U.S.
East Africa Drought
Today, Thompson said it wasn’t a good time to hold the hearing because of a drought in East Africa that has left more than 11 million people needing food aid.
“Somalia is currently in the grips of the worst humanitarian crisis in a generation,” he said at the hearing.
Over the past few years, dozens of young Somali Americans have traveled to Somalia to join up with al-Shabaab, which is fighting the country’s Western-backed government.
At the committee’s first hearing on radicalization in March, Abdirizak Bihi of Minneapolis described how he had been discouraged by Muslim religious leaders from working with law enforcement to locate his nephew, Burhan Hassan. The missing man was one of 20 Somali-Americans recruited by al-Shabaab to fight in Somalia.
The recruits are hard to track because Somalia, which lacks a functioning government, is a “black box,” said William Anders Folk, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Minnesota.
King said in a statement on the committee’s website that there hasn’t been “sufficient cooperation” from mosque leaders within the U.S. in dealing with radicalization.
In discussing the annual U.S. Worldwide Threat Assessment, released earlier this year, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the U.S. was monitoring al-Shabaab to determine its plans for attacks.
“We remain vigilant that al-Shabaab may expand its focus from fighting to control Somalia to plotting to attack” the U.S., Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.
The FBI has flagged the case of Shirwa Ahmed, 27, who lived in Minneapolis before going to Somalia, where in 2009 he carried out a suicide bombing. Ahmed was a naturalized U.S. citizen.