WASHINGTON – Federal authorities unsealed criminal charges Monday against eight suspects alleged to be part of a U.S. recruiting network that sent young men to fight in Somalia – one of the largest militant operations uncovered in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The court documents disclosed how some older members of the Somali-American community in Minneapolis are believed to have lured younger ones to fight in Somalia – some as suicide bombers – with an al-Qaida-affiliated group known as Al Shabab, or “The Youth.”
The charges include providing financial support to fighters who traveled to Somalia, attending Al Shabab training camps and fighting with the group against the U.S.-backed transitional government there, as well as against Ethiopian government forces and African Union troops.
The recruitment of young people from U.S. communities “has been the focus of intense investigation for many months,” said David Kris, the assistant attorney general for national security.
The new charges bring the number of men accused in connection with the case in Minnesota to 14. Several of the newly disclosed defendants are believed to be outside the United States.
At least 20 men, all but one of Somali descent, are thought to have left the Minneapolis area and traveled to Somalia between September 2007 and October 2009, according to court documents and interviews.
With an estimated 60,000, Minneapolis is home to the largest U.S. Somali community. Many came in the early 1990s as refugees, fleeing famine and a civil war. A cluster of high-rise apartments and the surrounding neighborhood in eastern Minneapolis have come to be known as Little Mogadishu.
As with members of many refugee groups, young Somalis have struggled with negotiating the conflicts between traditional culture and modern America. Authorities say Somali youths in the United States are more easily radicalized than other young Muslims because they are often poor and more isolated from society as a whole.
The fighters from Minneapolis, according to authorities, were trained in Somalia in the use of small arms, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and military-style tactics, authorities said. They added that the recruits were also indoctrinated with “anti-Ethiopian, anti-American, anti-Israeli and anti-Western beliefs.”
One of them, Shirwa Ahmed, attended Al Shabab training camps after leaving Minneapolis in 2007 and took part in one of five simultaneous suicide attacks on targets in northern Somalia in October 2008.
“Instead of the kids going over there as cannon fodder, this identifies some of the recruiters behind them,” said one federal law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation.
Federal authorities say they are particularly concerned that some of the men who receive training in guerrilla warfare and terrorism tactics in Somalia might return to launch attacks.
Federal authorities said they have been investigating support and finance cells for the network in several U.S. cities, including Boston, San Diego and Columbus, Ohio.
“It’s always troubling when you find indications of a terrorist recruitment and training operation with structure, organization and continuity, because those are the makings of an effective terrorist cell,” said Kenneth Wainstein, who tracked the threat of Somali Americans fighting overseas as head of counterterrorism and homeland security in the Bush administration until earlier this year.
“And while that terrorism may be focused today in the Horn of Africa, which is troubling enough, that same operation could conceivably be directed at us or our allies in the future,” Wainstein said.