On trail of Somali teen jihadists, FBI visits Atlanta Liberian community

While pursuing our recent story about the shooting death of a local teenager, I stumbled into an active FBI investigation.

While pursuing our recent story about the shooting death of a local teenager, I stumbled into an active FBI investigation.

One evening last month, more than 60 members of Atlanta's Liberian community gathered at Clarkston International Bible Church outside the city, to discuss the shooting by a Liberian youth. Community leaders spoke: a school principal, a minister, a judge, the local police chief. The shooter's family expressed regret and asked for help: His mom said she'd been in the US for five years raising her three children alone, and "I have ever been trying my possible best, God knows."

Two hours into the meeting, a pale, buzz-cut man, who'd slipped in partway through, stood and introduced himself as FBI Senior Special Agent Andy Young - "not the Andrew Young," he joked, referring to the Atlanta civil rights icon. Crowd members shifted in their seats, and the event's moderator joked that if the agent had said he was from US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the room would've cleared out. This got a huge, nervous laugh.

No, Agent Young said, he wasn't there to bust anybody on immigration violations. He was there to dispel commonly held fears about the FBI. He knew, he said, that many in refugee-rich Clarkston came from countries where national security services were "snatching people in the middle of the night." FBI agents are US public servants, he said, and "we are your friends." His agents would be visiting churches and mosques all over Clarkston to listen to the community's concerns.

But friendship, he said, carries "reciprocal obligations" - so he had a favor to ask. Although this was a gathering of - "Liberians, right?" - from the opposite side of Africa from Somalia, he wanted to ask their help making contact with friends, neighbors, coworkers: Anyone who might be a leader of Atlanta's Somali community.

Because Somali kids were disappearing. Not in Atlanta yet, that he knew of. But "six or seven high school kids," former refugees resettled in Minnesota's Twin Cities area, the largest Somali community in the US, had recently been recruited by an extremist group through a mosque there and sent back to Somalia to train as suicide bombers.

"One child blew himself up last month," Young said. "They flew his thumb back to [the FBI Academy in] Quantico [Va.]," fingerprinted it, and discovered he'd come to the US as a refugee.

"They're still looking for those six other children," said Young, "Their parents had no idea. They reported their kids missing." If terrorists are recruiting teenagers in Minnesota, Young said, they could easily be doing it in Atlanta too.

"You are my eyes and ears," he told the crowd. "Confidentiality is a given."

Since the meeting, I've been following news accounts of the FBI investigation of the missing Twin Cities-area youths. Newsweek reports there have been about 20 such cases in the past 18 months. The boy Agent Young mentioned, who blew himself up in October, was a Somali-American Minnesotan named Shirwa Ahmed. His bombing, Newsweek said, "killed dozens of civilians and political opponents of Al-Shabab," a hardline jihadist group believed to have close ties with Al Qaeda.

The weekly also reports that an FBI and Department of Homeland Security bulletin last week named Al Shabab as a group possibly planning an attack in the US to disrupt the presidential inauguration.

The Newsweek article examines in detail the story of another missing teen. "But security officials involved in the investigation have a bigger concern," reporters Dan Ephron and Mark Hosenball write, "that a jihadist group able to enlist U.S. nationals to fight abroad might also be able to persuade Somali-Americans to act as sleeper agents here in the United States."

The Liberian community meeting, I guess, got caught up in that scramble.

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