Senior counter-terrorism officials say an East Africa-based terrorist group that is recruiting young Somalis from Minneapolis has ties to al-Qaida insurgents.
Federal officials today outlined their concerns that young Somalis who've left Minnesota are being trained by al-Shabaab insurgents.
The FBI's J. Philip Mudd told the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee this morning that his agency believes the number of missing young men is in the "tens."
While there is no credible evidence that the young men who traveled to Somalia have returned to plan attacks, "we cannot rule out that potential given the indoctrination and training they might have received in East Africa," said Andrew Liepman, deputy director of intelligence at the National Counterterrorism Center.
The State Department considers al-Shabaab a terrorist organization, with growing links to al-Qaida, something the group denies.
Al-Shabaab, which means "The Youth," has been gaining ground as Somalia's Western-backed government crumbles. The group's goal is to establish an Islamic state in Somalia.
The uncle of one of the missing young men, Osman Ahmed, testified that he believes his nephew got his radical ideology from leaders at the Minneapolis mosque he attended.
He said his nephew, Burhan Hassan, was just eight months old when he left his Somali homeland, traveling first to a refugee camp in Kenya before settling in Minnesota with his mother.
Hassan, he said, was a good student and was taking calculus and chemistry in his senior year at Roosevelt High School and studying Islam at the nearby Abubakar As-Saddique mosque.
Ahmed said others who disappeared also went to the mosque.
"We are not blaming the mosque. Mosque is our place. We worship. What we are blaming is the management. The mosque itself cannot indoctrinate for the kids," said Ahmed.
Abubakar mosque denies the allegations that it played a role in recruiting young Somali-Americans to join Al-Shabaab.
Mosque director Omar Hurre told MPR News the allegations are baseless and false.
Mosque leaders were meeting Wednesday afternoon to prepare a full response, but say today's testimony was not surprising, and there are serious legal dimensions to consider.
Al-Shabaab, which means “The Youth,” has been gaining ground as Somalia's Western-backed government crumbles. The group's goal is to establish an Islamic state in Somalia.
According to Omar Ahmed, information the families have gotten back from people in Somalia suggests the teens are lured back with notions of Islamic utopia.
When they arrive, he said, they are whisked to military camps, and are told that if they try to return to the U.S. they will end up in the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba.
A young Somali man, Shirwa Ahmed, left Minneapolis in 2007, and set off a suicide bomb in October of last year as part of a coordinated series of attacks in Somalia. It was the first known time a U.S. citizen was a suicide bomber. Ahmed was buried in a Burnsville cemetery in December 2008.
Officials say they don't know how many young people have left Minnesota to go to Somalia, but suggest they were lured away through "sustained interaction" with extremists both in person and via the Internet.
The committee chairman, Sen. Joe Lieberman, says the problem threatens the security of the U.S. and the American dream for young Somalis.
"This is the most graphic and clear evidence that we've had thus far of a systematic campaign of recruitment of American youth, and in some ways the most promising of American youth, to leave the country to go fight a war that really will bring them to no good," said Lieberman.
The counterterrorism officials stressed that they are not seeing a widespread radicalization of Somali-Americans - many of whom fled the violence in their homeland.
Many, they said, are single mothers struggling to raise their families and fit in despite ongoing language and cultural hurdles.
Instead, the officials said they are most worried about al-Shabaab's links to al-Qaida and the possibility that Somalia will become a safe haven for insurgent training.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)