Editors Note: This story is the first in a FOXNews.com series that takes a closer look at State Department-designated terror organizations that are considered to pose a threat to United States security.
In the summer of 2007, a 28-year-old father of three from Houston, Texas, shocked his country when he became the first American ever to be convicted of receiving military training at a terrorist camp in Somalia.
Daniel Maldonado, an offbeat, outspoken young man who sported tattoos and dreadlocks, committed himself to wage jihad outside the United States and went to Somalia to receive training. It was there that he mastered the violent “arts” of homicide bombing, building IEDs and engaging in hand-to-hand combat.
Maldonado’s training in jihad came from Shabaab al Mujahideen, a group the State Department on Feb. 29, 2008, designated as a highly dangerous foreign terrorist organization.
Shabaab al Mujahideen, which espouses radical Islamic rule and has close ties to Al Qaeda, is best known for operating training camps for people seeking a more extreme form of Jihad. It also has been forging relations with Somali pirates who have recently been intercepting and holding for ransom several international shipping vessels.
Shabaab's ultimate goal, as articulated in an April statement, is to throw the West "into hell.”
The terror organization's main focus, according to the non-profit research group Nine Eleven Finding Answers (NEFA) Foundation, which granted FOX News exclusive access to its detailed reports on the activities of terrorists, is its elaborate network of terror camps that is attracting fundamentalists from around the world. This trend, NEFA warns, could explode in the near future. The fear is that Shabaab's training will give anyone with the desire to attack Wstern targets the knowledge to act alone.
“We are now seeing a disturbing pattern of lone-wolf style individuals — such as Maldonado — who have been inspired to join Shabaab in order to do their part in confronting the newest ‘crusader battlefront,’” NEFA said.
Maldonado left his wife and three young children behind to pursue a life of jihad, beginning with his training at a Shabaab camp. Early in 2007, he fled the camp when it was invaded by the Ethiopian military. He was later arrested by Kenyan authorities and transferred to U.S. custody. After a lengthy interrogation by the FBI and a subsequent trial in Houston, he was convicted of receiving training from a terrorist organization. He was sentenced in July, 2007, to 10 years in federal prison.
After the trial, FBI Director Robert Mueller praised the cooperation among international authorities that led to Maldonado's conviction. But the disturbing implications of his case lingered. During his interrogation, Maldonado said Shabaab is not only intent upon creating an army of extremists for a crusade against the West, but it also seeks to establish an extremist Islamic network of unrivaled strength.
As the armed wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), Shabaab was initially packaged and promoted to the people of Somalia as a “law and order” organization. Indeed, the collapse of the Somali government in the 1990s — when clan warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre -- resulted in years of violence and instability.
But what began with a promise to bring order to a broken, war-torn African nation rapidly developed into a new — and increasingly deadly — frontier in the war on terror.
According to Dr. J. Peter Pham, professor of justice studies and political science at James Madison University in Virginia, Somalia's conflict with Ethiopia destroyed much of Shabaab’s original leadership. What has replaced it is a group of cavalier fundamentalists with a desire to create a “Taliban-like” government in the country, similar to what existed in Afghanistan before the September 11 attacks.
Just as disturbing is Shabaab's association with the Somali pirates. While Shabaab's original leaders discouraged a connection to the pirates, the new generation appears to be developing a burgeoning relationship with the outlaws.
“Right now, the relationship between Shabaab and the pirates is one built out of convenience,” Pham said. “In return for allowing pirates to operate out of ports south of the city of Mogadishu, which are all controlled by Shabaab, it is receiving from the ransom the pirates demand for hijacked ships.”
Now analysts are concerned that Shabaab will develop a more significant relationship with the pirates, one that could result in an organization with the power to terrorize a struggling global economy.
“There is a real danger that they might see an opportunity for real economic impact,” Pham said, In a worst-case scenario, he said, “Shabaab might say, ‘Individual [homicide] bombers are effective, why not [homicide] tankers?’”
As it is now, the ransom money the pirates share helps fund Shabaab's jihadi cause, most likely in the form of weapons for its terror camps.
Its efforts in that regard have not gone unnoticed — Shabaab has garnered the praise of Usama bin Laden on multiple occasions.
According to NEFA, as early as 2006, bin Laden accused the West of interfering in Somalia’s politics as part of its "crusade" against Islam.
“We promise the almighty Allah that we will fight soldiers on the land of Somalia with his help and power,” bin Laden said. “We also reserve the right to punish them on their own land and in any available place at any time or in any way which is convenient for us.”
As Al Qaeda camps in areas like Pakistan and Afghanistan have come under increasing international scrutiny, NEFA said, Shabaab camps have “developed into a cheaper and more readily available alternative for jihadi recruits living in the West and seeking an appropriate venue to obtain expert instruction in the arts of terrorism.”
Video footage obtained by NEFA shows young men enduring a grueling preparation for war. Shabaab camps not only provide their fighters with weapons and ammunition, but also offer courses on bomb construction that are taught by Al Qaeda extremists.
At night, according to Maldonado, members of Shabaab gather together to share tales of bin Laden and his exploits.
Indeed, NEFA said, “Shabaab has proudly draped itself in the flag of Al Qaeda and the philosophy of global jihad against the U.S.” The terrorists welcome their placement with "other honorable men" on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
Both NEFA and Pham caution that the U.S. must take immediate steps to deal with the threat of Shabaab beyond giving it a mere designation on a list.
“We have fought so hard since 9/11 against terrorism,” Pham said. “We can’t afford to slip into the tendency of underestimating organizations like Shabaab.”