Panel says 40 left US for Somali terrorism

GOP staff found number double prior reports

By Amy Forliti and Eileen Sullivan
Associated Press / July 28, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Twice as many Americans as previously reported by law enforcement have traveled overseas to join a Qaeda-linked organization, a congressional investigation found.

The findings, discussed in a congressional hearing yesterday, are an indication the Somalia-based terrorist group has an even deeper reach into the United States.

More than 40 Americans have traveled to war-torn Somalia to join the terrorist group Al Shabab, an investigation by Republican staff on the House Homeland Security Committee found.

Al Shabab, which initially focused on regional grievances, has expanded its focus to include targeting the West and recruiting Americans toward that cause.

Counterterrorism officials fear that the terror group with ties to Al Qaeda is a growing threat to the United States. In at least one instance, the government said, Al Shabab received terror training from Al Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen.

Publicly, authorities have said at least 21 men left the Minneapolis area for Somalia since late 2007 and are believed to have joined the terror group. Four have died in the country, according to information from the FBI and family members who spoke to the Associated Press.

Others are feared dead, and the committee’s investigation found that at least 15 of the 40 Americans have been killed while fighting. In recent years, more than 35 people from across the United States have been charged with having connections to Al Shabab, including some who have been indicted for raising money to fund the terror group.

Details of the findings came out during the third in a series of congressional hearings examining the radical Islamic terror threat in the United States.

The chairman of the committee, Representative Peter King, Republican of New York, has been criticized for singling out one religion instead of looking at all issues of domestic extremism across the country. In response, King said only one group has killed 3,000 Americans: Al Qaeda, a terrorist organization that espouses a violent interpretation of Islam.

The top Democrat on the committee said the threat from Al Shabab has been overstated, as the number of people who left the United States to go to Somalia is small and was confined to a two-year period.

“Al Shabab does not appear to present any danger to this homeland,’’ said Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi.

Thompson’s assessment is in direct contrast to that of some intelligence officials in the Obama administration.

Just Tuesday, the president’s choice to lead the country’s top terror analysis center told senators that the threat from Al Qaeda affiliates around the world presents challenges.

“I’m especially concerned about the threat to the United States homeland from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula - AQAP, we call it - as well as threats emanating from terrorist safe havens in Somalia and elsewhere,’’ Matt Olsen said during his confirmation hearing to be director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

Minnesota, home to the largest Somali community in the United States, has been the center of the federal investigation into the travels and recruitment of those who are believed to have joined Al Shabab, and the hearings have prompted some there to warn against generalizations about Somalis or Muslims.