Why the Somali-American Terrorist Threat May Be Overblown

A group of missing Somali-Americans has sparked fears, but officials downplay the terrorism risk

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Shirwa Ahmed, a Somali-American from Minneapolis, earned the dubious distinction of being the first known U.S. citizen to become a suicide bomber. "It appears he was radicalized in his hometown in Minnesota," FBI chief Robert Mueller said recently, adding that the FBI was on the lookout for a handful of other young, male Somali-Americans who had gone missing. Ahmed blew himself up last fall, killing about 30 other people in a suicide truck bombing outside Mogadishu, Somalia.

The Ahmed case has provoked a chorus of alarming statements from senior government officials, including CIA Director Leon Panetta, who recently pointed to domestic Somali radicalization as "a potential threat to this country." But despite the growing drumbeat, counterterrorism experts in and out of the government caution that the threat remains largely hypothetical, at least for now. "We do not have credible reporting to indicate that U.S. persons who have traveled to Somalia are planning to execute attacks in the U.S.," Andrew Liepman, deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told lawmakers during a hearing this week.

The specter of domestic radicalization has been a persistent worry since 9/11, with notable poster child John Walker Lindh captured fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. Shirwa Ahmed was most likely working in Somalia with a group called al Shabaab, the militant faction of the Council of Islamic Courts, according to U.S. officials. The hard-line CIC ruled Somalia until Ethiopian troops invaded and ousted it in 2006. Al Shabaab, which continued to attack the occupying Ethiopian forces until they returned home, has also been publicly linked to al Qaeda, and the United States lists it as a terrorist group.

But there's no evidence yet that al Shabaab, much less al Qaeda, is actively seeking recruits from the United States. Nor is the nature of the relationship between Osama bin Laden's group and the Somali militia entirely clear. "There are linkages between the leadership of al Qaeda and al Shabaab," says one senior counterterrorism official. "But the evidence of that ideology filtering down to the fighters on the street is questionable. They are overwhelmingly focused on Somali issues." Liepman warned lawmakers that "it would be a mistake to correlate al Qaeda and al Shabaab too closely."

Indeed, foreigners from the Somali diaspora who join al Shabaab "are not going to join terrorist cells. They are going to a war," Philip Mudd, a veteran CIA analyst and now a senior official in the FBI's national security branch, said at the hearing. Many of these foreigners find themselves being used as foot soldiers—and sometimes cannon fodder—in a traditional military conflict.

What concerns officials more are returning veterans of the conflict. "Radicalized individuals, trained in terrorist tactics and in possession of American passports, can pose a threat," Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine warned. That's why the FBI is reaching out to the largest Somali communities in Ohio, San Diego, and Minneapolis. "The communities from which we need the most help are those who trust us the least," Mueller said. "It is in these communities that we must redouble our efforts."