A former federal prosecutor from Minnesota told a congressional committee Wednesday that it's tough to predict the next moves of the Somali terror group al-Shabab.
Anders Folk was the lead prosecutor for a Minneapolis-based terrorism case looking into the group's recruitment of several Twin Cities men. He told the House Committee on Homeland Security that the potential for those men to return to the United States and carry out an attack here is, "incredibly scary."
"A country such as Somalia, which has a transitional federal government that's responsible for a number of blocks in Mogidishu, but that has no authority beyond that, is a nation in which essentially you have a black box," Folk said. "That is, once somebody goes in, we may not have any ability to track them."
A spokesman from the FBI's Minneapolis division said officials do have information about the men's whereabouts in the Horn of Africa, but can't disclose them because of the ongoing investigation.
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The committee's chairman, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., asserted that more than 40 Americans have joined al-Shabab, and at least 15 have been killed fighting. King alleges at least 21 American recruits are still at large in Somalia, posing a direct threat to U.S. national security.
Both Folk and another Minnesota witness, St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith, stressed the importance of ongoing outreach with local Somali-Americans.
Smith said his department's youth programs and positive relationships with Somali-Americans are helping counter the threat of al-Shabab recruitment. And Folk mentioned similar outreach efforts by the FBI and federal prosecutors.
"If we have ever sent a message by our prosecutions or by our investigations that people are being prosecuted because of the god they worship, the country they call home, or the language they speak, we've failed," Folk said. "Outreach has to temper our prosecution to ensure we don't send that message."
While King pointed to al-Shabab's potential to wreak havoc on the United States, his committee's investigation did not find any evidence that the group had attempted an attack on American soil or citizens.
The panel's four witnesses largely noted the group's potential to threaten Americans.
"Even in a best-case scenario, when somebody's own family member may report them to be a potential threat to the United States, we sometimes miss them," Folk said.
Responding to allegations that Twin Cities mosques were linked to al-Shabab's recruiting, Folk said there was nothing to the claims.
"The individuals that were responsible for recruiting members of al-Shabab from the Minnesota community, I believe were doing so as individuals and represented not necessarily any particular mosque as an entity, but represented al-Shabab and the ideology of that organization," he said.
Critics of the hearings say King is singling out Muslim-Americans for investigation while failing to look into right-wing violence. Among the hearings' detractors is U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minneapolis, whom King did not allow to testify.
Ellison, one of two Muslims in Congress, did attend as a spectator. Afterwards, he said the hearings were more substantive than King's earlier rounds of hearings, but nevertheless proved that there is little need to keep digging into the topic of Muslim radicalization.
"I'm not saying that there's not a potential threat, but the point that we are in some imminent danger on American soil was not made through the testimony," Ellison said.
It was clear that all of that criticism had gotten under King's skin. Throughout the two-and-a-half-hour hearing, he was often defensive about the criticism he was taking from Democrats and the media.
"Let me make this clear to the New York Times and their acolytes in the politically correct, moral equivalency media, I will not back down from holding these hearings," King said.