By Nic Robertson and Paul Cruickshank
At a summit in London Thursday on Somalia one of the most pressing concerns was that Islamist militancy being incubated in the failing state could result in terrorist plots being hatched against the West. Earlier this month the Somali militant group Al-Shabaab formally merged its operations with al Qaeda.
"If the rest of us just sit back and look on, we will pay a price for doing so,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday.Countries like the UK, the United States, Denmark and Sweden who are grappling with integrating large Somali immigrant communities have been among the most concerned about the potential threat.
Last July a UK threat assessment stated that the threat from Somalia had significantly increased and that British militants who had traveled to the country were “returning to the UK to plan and conduct terrorist operations.” According to one reported estimate more than a hundred British residents have traveled to fight and train in Somalia.
Many but not all of the Western militants traveling to Somalia have been Somalis. Increasing pressure from drone strikes on militants in the tribal areas of Pakistan in the past several years made Somalia a more attractive destination for jihad for western militants of all backgrounds, according to counter-terrorism officials.
Danish and Swedish security services have also been particularly concerned because of the extensive presence of Al-Shabaab recruiters within Somali communities in their countries. In January 2010 one of the group’s operatives attempted but failed to assassinate a Danish cartoonist, Al-Shabaab’s first terrorist plot in the West.
For Peter King, the Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, the Al-Shabaab-al Qaeda merger was a particularly unwelcome development.
“We have to work on the presumption that al Qaeda and Al-Shabaab would not just unite – they would join forces to attack the United States,” King told CNN in an interview in his Long Island home after the two groups merged.
King’s committee last July published a report on the Al-Shabaab threat to the United States.
It found that 40 Americans had joined the Somali militant group, around half of whom “remain unaccounted for and pose a direct threat to the U.S. homeland,” and uniquely amongst Islamist terrorist outfits, Al-Shabaab had established a direct recruitment network in Minneapolis and several other U.S. cities.
King told CNN he believed no terrorist group currently posed a greater threat to the United States homeland.
“Right now Al-Shabaab has to be our main concern because of the fact of such easy travel back and forth, because there is a large number of [U.S. recruits], and the fact that there is such open recruitment,” he told CNN.
“The ultimate threat would be that they would take the skills they learned in Somalia being trained, and come back to the U.S. as suicide bombers,” King said.
Some terrorism experts are skeptical that Al-Shabaab is close to establishing this capability.
Richard Barrett, the coordinator of the UN Al Qaida Sanctions Committee, and a former director of counter-terrorism operations for British intelligence, told CNN he doubts American Somali recruits to Al-Shabaab are poised to carry out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
One reason, he says, is the significant intensification of FBI’s investigations into Al-Shabaab recruiting networks in the United States.
“I think they’ve got it buttoned up pretty much,” Barrett told CNN. “They’ve done their damndest to identify all the people who might have gone to Somalia.”
A second reason, Barrett says, is that American recruits in Somalia are not receiving the sort of training that would enable them to launch terrorist attacks back home. U.S. counter-terrorism officials have yet to detect the sort of bomb-making training in Somalia that al Qaeda has offered some Western recruits in Pakistan.
And a third reason, according to Barrett, is that the current leader of Al-Shabaab – Mukhtar Abu Zubair – despite joining forces with al Qaeda, appears more inclined to focus his attention on Somalia and attacks in neighboring countries, including Kenya which last autumn sent troops to confront Al-Shabaab in Somalia.
While there was growing concern last year that Al-Shabaab may pool resources with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen to launch terrorist attacks of growing ambition outside Somalia, Barrett says that the two groups – particularly after the death of American-Yemeni cleric Anwar al Awlaki – are no longer cooperating so closely.
Barrett says that Al-Shabaab leaders may also calculate that an attack against the West will cost them support in the Somali community overseas, a group that's important to their fundraising efforts.
However with Al-Shabaab now on the defensive in Somalia and many within the group blaming the West for orchestrating their demise, concern is mounting in western capitals that factions within the group may lash out with terrorist attacks. And the worry is after the merger with al Qaeda, the onus may now be on the group to demonstrate that it can participate in the terrorist network’s campaign of global terrorism.
“[The threat] may develop now, if Zawahiri says look I’ve finally recognized you as part of Al Qaeda, now you had better do something that’s global,” Barrett told CNN.
“In Somalia they have an opportunity with the foreign passport holders that could conceivably travel more easily,” said Barrett.
Another concern, despite intensified surveillance from U.S. law enforcement, is that Al-Shabaab recruiters may urge young Somalis living in the United States to launch attacks directly in America, instead of traveling to Somalia.
“You could have Al-Shabaab supporters in this country recruited, and then mobilized to carry out attacks in the country,” King told CNN.
King told CNN that despite the best efforts of U.S. law enforcement agencies to get a grip on the Al-Shabaab threat, intelligence gaps remained.
“The [Somali-American] leadership in too many cases is not cooperating with law enforcement and putting fear in to those who do want to cooperate with the police,” King told CNN.
Some U.S. officials have disputed that assessment. FBI director Robert Mueller in Congressional testimony last year stated that members of the Somali-American community in Minnesota had been “very cooperative” in rooting out terrorism.
A joint FBI-DHS threat assessment earlier this month obtained by CNN found that “the announcement of the merger [with al Qaeda] could rally some already radicalized individuals to travel to Somalia to join Al-Shabaab or, over the longer term, to adopt al-Qa'ida’s focus on anti-western plotting.”
The radicalism of some Somali-American youngsters was dramatically demonstrated in November 2010 when Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, was arrested after attempting to blow up a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon with a fake bomb given to him by FBI undercover agents. According to U.S. authorites, Mohamud was radicalized by jihadist websites and was not directly connected to any jihadist group. He has pleaded not guilty.
Counter-terrorism officials are worried that Americans are being radicalized by Al-Shabaab’s online propaganda output, much of which is in English and is among the most sophisticated and savvy of any jihadist group.
Stevan Weine, a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois in Chicago who has conducted extensive field research in the Somali community in Minneapolis, told CNN late last year that not enough is being done to confront radicalization in the area at the community, local, or federal level.
“There continue to be voices of extremism on the internet and in the community that anybody can have access to, and no strong counter-narrative has really yet emerged. What really concerns me is that so many young people have been touched by this message, some likely pretty far along in the process of being prepared for mobilization to go to fight in Somalia,” he told CNN.
According to Weine in many ways the experience of Somalis in Minneapolis more closely resembles that of North African immigrants living in the suburbs of Paris or British-Pakistanis living in the outer neighborhoods of London than the experience of the mostly upwardly mobile American Muslim community.
“The lack of integration of many Somalis in Minneapolis, poor living conditions, the fact that 60% live below the poverty line, and feelings of lack of purpose and discrimination have all created a fertile climate for Al-Shabaab’s recruiters, which the recent economic downturn has only aggravated,” Weine told CNN.
Despite these concerns, Al-Shabaab experts say only a radical fringe of Somali-Americans have embraced Al-Shabaab’s ideology, and their numbers have been shrinking because of the group’s failure to bring security to the country and their brutal imposition of Taliban-like rules on the local population. In recent months, according to the experts, many Somalis living in the West have been angered by its refusal to let in western aid agencies despite acute famine conditions in many parts of the country.
According to the recent FBI/DHS threat bulletin, U.S. officials expect the Al-Shabaab-al Qaeda merger to further diminish support for Al-Shabaab within the broader Somali diaspora community, some of whom supported the group because of its role in confronting Ethiopian troops who invaded the country in 2006.
Yet when it comes to the terrorist threat, it has always been the dangerous few that cause most concern to counter-terrorism officials. Now the group is effectively al Qaeda in Somalia, the FBI/DHS bulletin warned the merger may “increase Al-Shabaab’s appeal to homegrown violent extremists–including some ethnic Somalis–particularly those who are consumers of al-Qa'ida propaganda.”