Published March 20, 2009
Many of the Somali-American men who were recruited to join an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group overseas have returned to the United States, according to a source familiar with an FBI investigation into the matter — but the FBI still has not revealed publicly if it is pursuing arrests in the case.
"Some of the guys who were missing aren't missing anymore," the source said. "Some of them got blown up and some of them came back, and some of them are still there [in Somalia]."
For several months the FBI has been investigating at least 20 Somali-American men from the Minneapolis area who traveled to war-torn Somalia, where some of them trained and fought with an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist group known as al-Shabaab, according to counterterrorism officials.
Asked to characterize how many of those men are now back on American soil, the source would only say that "several" have returned. Federal authorities believe the men went to Somalia to join al-Shabaab, which has been warring with the moderate Somali government since 2006.
Usama bin Laden weighed in Thursday on the battle. In an audiotape posted online, the Al Qaeda leader urged Somalis to fight against the Somali government, insisting, "The war which has been taking place on your soil these past years is a war between Islam and the international crusade."
At a Senate hearing in Washington last week, counterterrorism officials said there is no intelligence to indicate that Somali-Americans who traveled to Somalia are planning attacks inside the United States.
“We do not have a credible body of reporting right now to lead us to believe that these American recruits are being trained and instructed to come back to the United States for terrorist attacks,” said Philip Mudd, a top-ranking official with the FBI’s National Security Branch. “Yet, obviously, we remain concerned about that, and watchful for it.”
Minneapolis has become the hub — and the media focus — of the FBI's investigation. But the FBI is casting a wide and growing net across the country, even in places hundreds of miles away from Minneapolis.
Testimony from counterterrorism officials and others at the Senate hearing last week suggested that the FBI investigation is active in Columbus, Ohio; Cincinnati, Ohio; Boston; Seattle; and San Diego.
"The FBI will follow leads wherever they takes us," said Rich Kolko, the chief of the FBI's National Press Office.
In fact, the FBI Field Office in San Diego has already interviewed "dozens" of people from the Somali-American community there, according to a local attorney.
The lawyer, Mahir Sherif, said he knows many of those who were interviewed, and he said the FBI often asked the same questions: Do you know anyone who has left the United States for Somalia? What are your feelings about Somalia? What are your feelings about Barack Obama? Do you know anyone who has committed an act of terrorism?
Sherif also said he knows at least one Somali-American who has received a subpoena to appear before a San Diego grand jury in the next couple of weeks. Sherif wouldn't identify the person but described him as a naturalized U.S. citizen in his 30s. Sherif said the person "consulted" with him after receiving the subpoena. The person recently traveled to the Middle East, which may have raised a red flag with authorities, according to Sherif. He did not say where in the Middle East the person visited.
Last week, a Muslim leader in the Minneapolis area told FOX News that at least 10 people in the Somali community there had been subpoenaed to testify before a Minneapolis grand jury, and another 40 had been interviewed by the FBI.
In cases like this, the field office leading the investigation — with help from FBI headquarters in Washington — "outlines" an investigative plan that is then implemented by other field offices, according to Kevin Donovan, a former FBI Assistant Director with the New York Field office.
"The lead field office basically sends out assignments in field offices across the U.S. and even around the world," he said.
It's unclear exactly what the FBI or any grand jury in San Diego would be investigating. A former Justice Department official said an FBI or grand jury investigation could be looking into something as clear-cut as a group of men from San Diego who joined al-Shabaab in Somalia, or they could be investigating whether someone from the San Diego area helped finance the Minneapolis men's travel overseas.
Either way, the former official said, "there has to be some kind of link to the Southern District of California."
Meanwhile, law enforcement officials tell FOX News that federal authorities in Seattle have been keeping track of a group of men in Washington state with alleged ties to Somali-American terrorists.
Authorities in Seattle recently arrested a Muslim convert the FBI believes had been in contact with Ruben Shumpert, one of the first Americans to join Islamic militants in Somalia. Shumpert, also a convert to Islam, was killed in Somalia last year.
Two weeks ago federal authorities charged Jimmy Lee King with drug and weapons-related offenses stemming from an incident in late November, according to court documents. An FBI official said King had been on the FBI's radar for some time, first gaining the FBI's attention after "assocating" with Shumpert. It's unclear whether the FBI has interviewed King in its investigation of Somali-linked terrorism, but court documents filed two weeks ago by the Joint Terrorism Task Force say King talked with the FBI "on several previous occasions regarding matters unrelated to the [November incident]."
The FBI official said King is believed to be involved in gang activity in Seattle, but the FBI is still trying to determine exactly how strong of a connection — if any — he has to international terrorism.
Donovan, the former FBI official, said charging a suspect with "lesser charges" when that suspect may have information relevant to a bigger investigation is "prudent."
"Many times it would be absolutely critical using lesser charges ... to get deeper into an organization," he said.
Dan Springer contributed to this report from Seattle