It started about two years ago.
Somali-American youth in Minneapolis would suddenly go missing, telling their parents they were going out with friends or just off to do some laundry — only to board planes to Africa. About 20 young men have disappeared so far, and they are believed to have traveled to Somalia to join a terrorist group.
NPR first reported this story in January and on Wednesday law enforcement officials told Congress how they think the young men are recruited and what threat they might pose to the United States.
American counterterrorism officials' worst fears are personified by a young Somali-American named Shirwa Ahmed. He left Minneapolis about 18 months ago to join an Islamic militia in Somalia called al-Shabab. Then, last October, he drove a car full of explosives into a crowd in Somaliland, killing 27 people.
Those kinds of stories worry Andrew Liepman, the deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
"We do worry that there is a potential that these individuals could be indoctrinated by al-Qaida while they are in Somalia and then return to the United States with the intention to launch attacks," he told the Senate's Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday. "They could provide al-Qaida with trained extremists inside the United States."
The disappearance of these Midwestern Somali-Americans comes at a time when counterterrorism officials are watching the growing alliance between al-Shabab and al-Qaida. One of the questions at Wednesday's hearing was whether the young men were actually being recruited by the Somali terror group. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), the committee chairman, suggested as much while questioning FBI Associate Director Philip Mudd.
"I assume from what you both said that therefore we can assume that there are recruiters or leaders in the Somali-American community who are responsible for the movement of people. Is that right?" Lieberman asked.
Mudd nodded: "I think that is fair."
That's the first time the bureau has admitted that recruiters operate in Minneapolis. Mudd outlined how the bureau thinks the recruitment happens.
"I don't see people out there saying, 'Man, can we have another 10 Americans.' So I think it is a simple story of people saying, 'I want to fight for my country,' or 'I want to live in another social or religious environment' not people saying, 'I wish I had more Americans,'" he said. "In fact, in some cases the Americans can be a security risk for them."
A security risk because the young men coming from the States arrive in the middle of Somalia's civil war armed with little more than their faith and a desire to help.
"Some get there and become cannon fodder," Mudd said. "These folks aren't going over there to become part of terrorist cells. A lot of them are on the front lines and some of them have been killed on the front line, from the United States. And lastly, some are going over there and saying 'Whoa, this is a serious war' and there is lead flying and they lie, cheat or steal to get back because they are in an environment in which they say, 'I can't take this.'"
For counterterrorism officials the question is: Which is it? Will these young men come back as terrorists or might some of them simply try to get out of Somalia alive?