After Crawling Onto U.S. Radar, Somalia Extremists Pose Threat – But Will They Go Global?

One of the nation's top intelligence officials was stunned by what he heard in that secret, underground facility.

Jack Tomarchio, the Department of Homeland Security's Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis at the time, had flown from Washington to Ohio earlier that spring day for a briefing on the Buckeye State's latest efforts against terrorism. Now, as heavy winds battered the streets above, two Ohio Homeland Security officials told him how the capitals of Ohio and Minnesota had become havens for refugees of war-torn Somalia.

"Get out of town!" Tomarchio remembers saying in surprise. "Why did they go to Minnesota? It's freezing up there. Why don't they go to Arizona, where it's desert-like?"

Then the two briefers told Tomarchio they were becoming increasingly concerned about "radical mosques" in Columbus, Ohio, where imams "considered to be a little fiery" would come from Somalia and preach anti-Western messages to the growing Somali community, Tomarchio recalls about that day in 2006.

It marked one of the first times a U.S. counterterrorism official was warned that Islamic extremists in Somalia could pose a threat to the U.S. homeland -- not just a threat to the Horn of Africa or U.S. interests there.

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In the years since, such extremists have become more powerful, more global and more deadly than U.S. officials ever imagined. One group in particular, Al Shabab, has recruited dozens of Americans from Minneapolis and elsewhere. They've produced the first known American suicide bomber, pledged their allegiance to Usama bin Laden, and last month launched their first attack outside Somalia with coordinated bombings in nearby Uganda.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called it "a new phase for Al Shabab," promising that the U.S. government is "constantly looking" to prepare for and prevent "any type of terrorist attack that should occur on our own soil."

In retrospect, federal officials now say, the U.S. government may have been slow to recognize Al Shabab's full potential. A senior intelligence official acknowledged that Al Shabab "exceeded our expectations," and Pat Rowan, a former top-ranking official with the Justice Department's counterterrorism division, said concern sparked by the recruitment in Minneapolis was "pretty late in the whole process." Similarly, a former FBI intelligence official said he and others "didn't think enough about the impact" of a key point in Al Shabab's rise.

So the big question now: Will Al Shabab launch an attack inside the United States?

Some current and former officials say they're skeptical, believing if it happens it won't be anytime soon. While acknowledging that the chances of such an attack have "probably" increased over the past two years, the senior intelligence official said Al Shabab still has limited reach and limited intentions.

"They've now gone beyond Somali borders to hit Uganda, but is hitting Uganda and hitting Buffalo (N.Y.) the same thing? No," the official said. "It's substantially different. Getting from Mogadishu to Kampala is relatively simple."

More importantly, the senior intelligence official said, Al Shabab's "number one goal" is "not to win the global jihad, it's to turn Somalia into a Shabab-ville," where strict Islamic law rules everything, and he hasn't seen any "convincing evidence that they've refocused on the West at large."

Phil Mudd, who is considered by the FBI an expert on Al Shabab and until March was a top-ranking official in the agency's National Security Branch, agreed, saying that of all the threats against the United States "this is not top tier yet."

"It's easy to sit here and say, 'Everybody's a major threat,' but when you're managing resources, you've got to say, 'If somebody's a major threat, that means I've got to put them on the level of" Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which orchestrated the failed Christmas Day bombing, and the Pakistani Taliban, "which has shown intent and capability in New York" with the botched Times Square bombing, Mudd said. "I don't know how you would do that in this case."

The nation's top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Eric Holder, echoed that assessment during a press conference two weeks ago, telling reporters, "I don't think we have any direct evidence that Al Shabab is threatening the homeland."

One counterterrorism official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he too has seen intelligence suggesting Al Shabab is not currently directing attacks at the U.S. homeland, but he said the issue is "not so black and white."

"Organizationally Al Shabab might not have turned its sights to attacks outside Africa, but the danger is that as they recruit Americans to go over and train, how do we know that in furtherance of that ideology (those Americans) won't come back and do something on their own?" the counterterrorism official said. "One has got to be concerned that when they return, they will continue in that behavior."

In addition, during a briefing with reporters after the attacks in Uganda, a senior administration official noted that there was "no forewarning or reporting that indicated that these attacks were going to be taking place," adding that Al Shabab can "carry out relatively unsophisticated attacks with very lethal results."

Then the administration official emphasized this point: "Al Shabab has been on our radar screen for a while."

Now, through interviews with several current and former U.S. officials, and an extensive review of federal documents and court records related to Al Shabab, Fox News has compiled a uniquely detailed account of how Al Shabab landed on the U.S. radar screen and what it could mean for homeland security.

From 'Rag Tag Group of Kids' to 'Foreign Terrorist Organization' 

Al Shabab's name first emerged in U.S. intelligence reports in July 2006, shortly after Usama bin Laden posted a message online warning the international community to stay out of Somalia. At the time, what U.S. officials called a "loose coalition of Islamic insurgents" known as the Islamic Courts Union and their "extremist faction" were fighting the relatively new Transitional Federal Government. The "extremist faction" dubbed themselves Al Shabab -- or "The Youth" in Arabic.

Tomarchio remembers coming across the name in his daily briefing materials, which suggested then that Al Shabab "may have declared some affinity towards Al Qaeda." In addition, some of Al Shabab's top leaders were linked to Al Qaeda's bosses.

It was not the first time Al Qaeda and Somalia had appeared together in U.S. intelligence. In the early 1990s, Al Qaeda issued a "fatwah" against the United States for its involvement in the post-dictator humanitarian crisis there. "The American army now came to the Horn of Africa, and we have to stop the head of the snake," an Al Qaeda leader once said of the fatwah.

Then, after the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, U.S. officials worried Somalia could become a hideout for Al Qaeda operatives. Those concerns were magnified after 9/11, and the FBI began hiring more Somali speakers and sending more agents to the Horn of Africa, as the U.S. military set up a task force there. At the time, a military spokesman described the task force's mission this way: "to defeat terrorists who pose an imminent threat to coalition partners in the region."

By late 2006, Al Shabab fit that description. Enraged by the recent invasion of American-backed Ethiopian forces into Somalia, Al Shabab broke away from the Islamic Courts Union and launched its own war -- promising peace and stability while using targeted assassinations, public amputations and other "guerrilla" tactics.

In the United States, Somali refugees were also angered by the invasion, and they were beginning to take notice of Al Shabab. Near Minneapolis, home to the nation's largest Somali population, events unfolding overseas became a hot topic at local events. The Minneapolis Police Department's Somali Community Liaison, officer Jeanine Brudenell, remembers a Somali gang member telling her, "I'd go over and fight to keep Ethiopia out of Somalia."

But within the federal government, Al Shabab was still seen as a "somewhat rag-tag group of kids" that didn't have much influence or impact outside of Somalia, according to the senior intelligence official.

That perception began to change in the first days of 2007, when U.S. officials discovered that at least four Americans -- and many others from Canada and Europe -- had made their way to Somalia. Among them were Omar Hammami, an Alabama-born college dropout who would become a commander and media star for Al Shabab, and his friend Daniel Maldonado, a Boston native who received weapons and explosives training in Somalia.

In late January 2007, Kenyan forces captured Maldonado near Somalia's porous border with Kenya, and the U.S. Justice Department quickly indicted him on terrorism-related charges.

"Up until then, I sort of was aware there was a great deal of civil unrest, and (Al Shabab) was an Islamic entity that was part of the fighting," said Rowan, the Justice Department's Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Counterterrorism at the time. "But having an American who actually wasn't from Somalia and was a convert (to Islam) ... aiding an arm of Al Qaeda in Somalia, that's what sticks in my mind as my first awareness that there was a problem here that really touched our shores in a direct way."

Hammami was still in Somalia, and in October 2007 he appeared in an Al Jazeera TV report discussing the "common goal" of Al Qaeda and Al Shabab. In the report, Hammami kept his face hidden behind a cloth, but U.S. authorities knew who he was, and they were secretly building a criminal case against him in his native Alabama.

Still, many in the U.S. government weren't convinced that Al Shabab was a threat to the U.S. homeland. At this point, Americans who left to join the group in Somalia were seen as only "one-offs," according to Mudd.

"There just weren't that many," Tomarchio agreed. "They were kind of under the radar screen." Rowan added that while "anybody who was really kind of hooked in would have been aware" of Al Shabab, the group was not seen as a practitioner of international terrorism.

Then in early 2008 something happened, and counterterrorism officials within the U.S. government scrambled to get Al Shabab onto the State Department's Foreign Terrorist Organizations List, which would make it a crime to provide any substantial support to the group.

The issue "became a topic of a lot of conversation" during regularly scheduled meetings with national security officials at the White House, and there was "a lot of urgency to try to get the process completed," Rowan said.

Rowan wouldn't disclose what sparked the scramble, insisting "parts of it" are still classified. But federal officials now say that in the last few months of 2007, groups of young, Somali men had been meeting at private homes and a mosque near Minneapolis to discuss fighting against Ethiopians and others in Somalia. In December 2007, at least seven Somali men disappeared from their homes, bound for Somalia.

It was an episode that "raised the alarm" and forced federal officials to reconsider whether Al Shabab was just a "threat locally," the senior intelligence official said. Rowan described the exodus from Minneapolis as "a very big deal" and "definitely an eye-opener for everybody."

"I confess: Like a lot of people, I didn't think enough about the impact of the '06 invasion," Mudd, the former FBI official, said. "It shows you really the globalization of domestic security when in 2006 you sit in Washington and ... you have to worry, 'Is there a trigger that nobody really thinks about that might cause some kid in Minneapolis, because he's on the Internet and they're on Skype, to go to Somalia?' I should have focused more on that."

On Feb. 26, 2008, two months after the Minneapolis men left their homes, the State Department designated Al Shabab a foreign terrorist organization, citing a "sufficient factual basis" to do so.

The FBI in Minneapolis then launched a formal investigation. But despite the new designation and new FBI investigation, more Somali men -- and one Muslim convert -- from Minnesota left for Somalia over the following months.

Federal authorities became particularly concerned when on Oct. 29, 2008, one of them became the first known American suicide bomber. Shirwa Ahmed, 28, had blown himself up, part of five coordinated bombings across Somalia that killed at least 22 people. Tomarchio said that's when a possible threat to the U.S. homeland "began to dawn" on him.

"When that one guy goes and blows himself up, it certainly raises a level of interest to me that we may have others who may come back to this country or go other places and commit mayhem," Tomarchio said.

After the new year, such concerns were being shared publicly by federal officials. Donald Van Duyn, then the chief intelligence officer for the FBI's National Security Branch, was one of the first to publicly raise the issue.

"We must carefully monitor travel to participate in terrorist activities or fighting overseas, such as that recently reported by ethnic Somalis traveling to fight in Somalia," Van Duyn said on Jan. 8, 2009, during a Senate hearing about the Mumbai terrorist attacks two months earlier. "Individuals who receive terrorist training or experience overseas clearly represent a threat."

Federal officials within the counterterrorism community were now focused on Al Shabab. During President Obama's inauguration, the FBI chased down a possible Al Shabab threat to the festivities that was ultimately debunked, and in February 2009 federal prosecutors secretly won their first indictment in the Minneapolis recruitment case.

Then in March 2009, shortly after Al Qaeda leader Ayman A-Zawahri released a video praising the "widening influence" of Al Shabab, the Senate Homeland Security Committee held a hearing devoted specifically to the group. Mudd, the former FBI official, was one of two high-level U.S. officials to testify at the hearing, titled "Violent Islamist Extremism: Al Shabab Recruitment in America."

Asked how "significant" the problem is, Mudd said that while the number of Americans who left for Somalia "sounds small," it is significant "because every terrorist is somebody who can potentially throw a grenade into a shopping mall." He also noted that there was no intelligence to suggest American recruits were being directed to launch attacks inside the United States, but he said, "We remain concerned about that, and watchful for it."

'Would Speak Different Today'

Mudd said he "would speak different today" than he did during that March 2009 hearing, insisting "the temperature's been lowered" on the ground in Somalia and within Somali communities in the United States.

Not only have some foreign forces opposed by Al Shabab already left Somalia, but the FBI investigation and reaction from Somalis inside the United States seem to be having an effect.

At least 26 men and women spanning eight states have now been charged for either joining Al Shabab, planning to do so, or trying to help others get there. Of those in custody, at least five have pleaded guilty.

At the same time, Somalis inside the United States decided, "We got to get our arms around this because we don't want our kids going over there getting whacked," Mudd said. The senior intelligence official agreed, describing Somali communities as "horrified" that some of their own were joining Al Shabab.

But in particular, Mudd said, he believes an Al Shabab attack inside the United States is unlikely based on a framework he created during two decades at the CIA, National Security Council and FBI. He called Al Shabab "cookie cutter" and "pretty predictable."

In his framework, extremist movements start off at "the local stage," targeting local interests, officials and citizens, Mudd said. In the next stage, groups absorb a more radical ideology and begin launching attacks against foreigners locally. Only a "handful" of groups have reached this stage, and Al Shabab is "shifting" there, he said, citing attacks on African peacekeeping forces in Mogadishu.

But Mudd insisted that Al Shabab has not reached the third stage: global jihad. He said Al Shabab is unlikely to get there -- even though within the past two months alone, two New Jersey men and a Virginia man with no known ties to Somalia have been arrested for trying to join the group. The two New Jersey men told FBI agents they were inspired in part by online recruitment videos featuring Hammami.

"You still have a movement most of which is internally focused in terms of the civil war," he said. "I still think that's an intermediate stage. ... (and) getting beyond that bar is pretty tough."

He said reaching the final stage of "global jihad" requires a "comfort level" that the government can't reach them, and there are "so few groups that have that combination of factors that allow them to make that step."

Plus, the Al Qaeda-connected element within Al Shabab is "just a miniscule portion of the movement," he said. Over the past two years, airstrikes in Somalia by U.S. forces have killed two Al Shabab leaders linked to Al Qaeda, Saleh Nabhan and Aden Hashi Ayro. And a State Department report on terrorism issued Aug. 5 said "many" of Al Shabab's fighters "do not adhere to the ideology that is held by the group's leaders."

The senior intelligence official, meanwhile, said Somalia is slowly losing its reputation as a "cool location" to "commit jihad," much like what happened in Iraq and other places that have attracted foreigners.

"There was this romantic notion that you go to Iraq and you join the jihad, with brothers in arms," the senior intelligence official said. "What they found out was the Iraq was a (crap)hole, and it was the hottest place anyone had ever been, and the likelihood that you were going to get killed before you actually got to commit suicide was pretty high. ... People wrote back and said, 'Ah! This sucks, it sucks to be a martyr.' So I think it became a slightly less popular destination, and I think the same happened in Somalia."

In fact, at least five of the men from Minneapolis who joined Al Shabab have been reported killed in Somalia.

As for Tomarchio, four years after his underground briefing in Ohio and after first hearing of Al Shabab, he also said he believes an Al Shabab strike inside the United States is "unlikely" anytime soon. But, he said, it's too early to "write off the future operational capabilities of Al Shabab."

"We did this with Al Qaeda years ago," he said. "And what did that give us? 9/11."