Domestic radicalization may be the newest front in the ongoing campaign against terrorism, a reality underscored last October when a man from Minnesota traveled to Somalia and blew himself up in a suicide bombing.
Shirwa Ahmed, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was radicalized and recruited into a Somali militant group near his hometown of Minneapolis, according to the FBI. He then traveled to Somalia and was driving a truck filled with explosives during an attack in northern Somalia, making him the first known U.S. citizen to carry out a terrorist suicide bombing, said FBI Director Robert Mueller. Several of Ahmed's associates, also from Minnesota and affiliated with a Somali militant group, have left the country and are still unaccounted for, according to federal law enforcement and counterterrorism officials.
Mueller highlighted the Ahmed case this week in Washington, saying that better FBI outreach to immigrant communities will be key to foiling such plans. "The prospect of young men, indoctrinated and radicalized within their own communities and induced to travel to Somalia to take up arms—and to kill themselves and perhaps many others—is a perversion of the immigrant story," he said. "For these parents to leave a war-torn country only to find their children have been convinced to return to that way of life is heartbreaking."
These immigrant communities have become a top priority for the FBI, despite resistance and mistrust on the part of some of them. "Too often, we run up against a wall between law enforcement and the community, a wall based on the myth and misperception of the work we do," he said. "Oftentimes, the communities from which we need the most help are those who trust us the least. But it is with these communities that we must redouble our efforts."
His speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, about the FBI's role in thwarting global terrorism, also illustrated how much of a wake-up call the attacks in Mumbai were for the U.S. counterterrorism community.
Discussing the FBI's role in the investigation, he said the attacks underscored the dangerous reality that "terrorists with large agendas and little money can use rudimentary weapons to maximize their impact."
The low-tech methods, high death toll, and substantial publicity make the incident particularly concerning, Mueller said: "How many other cities around the world could fall prey to such an attack? How many cities here in the United States?"
Mueller revealed aspects of the FBI's role in the investigation. Special Agent Steve Merrill, a legal attaché, helped coordinate the bureau's efforts, including interviewing witnesses and deploying a rapid response team. Mueller said that FBI technicians lifted fingerprints from an unexploded bomb and wired back together a smashed cellphone connected to the case.
- Read more about the lessons of Mumbai.