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A US pipeline for jihad in Somalia?

Somali-American men are returning to their homeland to fight alongside Al Shabab, an insurgent group with ties to Al Qaeda. Some experts think an organized recruiting effort is responsible for luring them back to Somalia.

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer / December 30, 2009

Prayers: Worshipers attend evening prayers at the Abubakar as-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis. Shirwa Ahmed, implicated in a terror attack in Somalia, attended this mosque.

Craig Lassig/AP/File

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Seattle

Nearly two decades after their parents fled war and famine for the safety and abundance of Minnesota, Ohio, and the wet suburbs of Seattle, a steady stream of young Somali-American men are headed back into the fight.

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They are going to wage jihad in a homeland they barely know, driven by a heady brew of nationalist and religious fervor and lured by what experts say is a sophisticated recruitment network exploiting vulnerabilities in the Somali diaspora.

As many as six Somali-Americans are believed to have died after taking up arms with Al Shabab, the Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants battling the transitional government in Somalia. Shirwa Ahmed, who traveled from Minneapolis to help execute an attack on Oct. 29, 2008, that killed 20 people, is believed to be the first American suicide bomber.

Somali refugees in North America and Europe began returning to their homeland to fight after Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006, routing the Islamist coalition then governing much of the country. The incursion provoked a declaration of holy war by Somalia’s Muslim hard-liners against their neighboring Christian nation, and, more broadly, the United States for its perceived support of the invasion.

Since then at least 20 young Somali-Americans have gone to join the insurgency. Their path to radicalization, and perhaps eventually to the ranks of militant Islam, represents a pressing concern for US counterterrorism officials today. Many of the young men who traveled to the battlefields in the Horn of Africa have died, but a handful have returned.

There’s no evidence yet that these Al Shabab (the Youth) fighters have targets outside their homeland, federal officials say, but radicalized US citizens or legal residents present a unique challenge – they can come and go with relative ease.

“That is the single most significant issue,” says David Gomez, assistant special agent-in-charge of the Seattle field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Once someone has been radicalized and trained by militants, he says, “he is then a viable recruitment target for any terrorist group.”

A string of recent counterterrorism cases adds new weight to this concern. In December, five young Americans from the Washington, D.C., area were arrested in Pakistan for reportedly trying to join a militant training camp connected to Al Qaeda. In Chicago, David Headley has been charged with traveling to India to help orchestrate the 2008 Mumbai (Bombay) attacks that killed about 170 people.

Foreign-born terrorists can be stopped at US borders, but American residents who have been radicalized can move about freely at home and abroad. Marginalized Somali refugees living here may be susceptible to being recruited; some already have been.

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