By Pete Williams Justice correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/11/2009 8:12:48 PM ET 2009-03-12T00:12:48

The prospect that young men from the United States who fought in Somalia's civil war might return to stage terror attacks at home is a serious potential threat, but one that could soon begin to fade, U.S. intelligence officials said Wednesday.

Since last fall, at least 20 young men from the Minneapolis area, some as young as 17, have left their families and turned up in Somalia to join a jihadist group called al-Shabaab. One of them, Shirwa Ahmed, a 27-year-old college student, blew himself up last October in a suicide bombing.

U.S. intelligence officials were alarmed to discover that Ahmed, a naturalized American citizen, could become so radicalized while living in the U.S. that he would accept an assignment as a suicide bomber — the first American believed to have done so.

"We do worry that there is the potential that these individuals could be indoctrinated into al- Qaida while they're in Somalia and then returned to the United States with the intention to conduct attacks. They would, in fact, provide al-Qaida with trained extremists in the United States," said Andrew Liepman of the National Counterterrorism Center.

Their American passports would make it easier for them to re-enter the country, he told the Senate's Homeland Security Committee Wednesday.

But that concern, which has prompted U.S. officials to try monitoring the movement of the young men, remains a theoretical one.

"We do not have a credible body of reporting that now to leads us to believe that these American recruits are being trained and instructed to come back to the United States for terrorist attacks," the FBI's Philip Mudd told the committee.

"Yet, obviously, we remain concerned about that and watchful for it," Mudd said.

Number believed to be small
The number of Americans who have gone to Somalia is thought to be quite small. "I would talk in terms of tens of people," he said, "but it's significant because every terrorist is somebody who can potentially throw a grenade into a shopping mall."

Tracking the young men from Minneapolis to Somalia is difficult, and sometimes their relatives are the only sources of dependable information, FBI officials say.

"There are thousands of people who go to the Horn of Africa every month. You can go to Kenya to look at game parks, and it's hard for me to tell you whether somebody's going to a game park or going to Shabaab," Mudd said.

As for those who return, federal officials must decide whether to prosecute them for supporting al-Shabaab, declared a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department a year ago, or assume that because they have disengaged from the Somali fight they no longer harbor radical ambitions.

Intelligence analysts and scholars who have studied the civil war in Somalia say the young Americans are not drawn by Islamic extremism or a desire to wage jihad against the West. They are motivated instead by a strong sense of nationalism to defend their homeland, a sentiment that grew stronger after an invasion by forces from neighboring Ethiopia.

"These folks aren't going over there to become part of terrorist cells. A lot of them are being put on the front line and some of them, I think, have been killed on the front line," Mudd told the committee.

Many of the American volunteers quickly become disenchanted, he said. "Some are going over there saying, 'Whoa, this is a serious war, there's serious lead flying,' and they sort of lie, cheat and steal their way to get back."

And some experts believe al-Shabaab's influence is declining. Ethiopian forces withdrew late last year, depriving the group of a rallying point. And Somalia's new president is reaching out to the Islamic opposition, developments that have deprived al-Shabaab of its reason for being.

"Shabaab may well have hit its high-water mark in 2008 and now faces declining support and possible defections. If so, this is good news," said Prof. Ken Menkhaus of Davidson College, who has tracked the group.

"It would mean that the threat of Shabaab recruitment among the diaspora will be less a threat in the future," he said, referring to the roughly one million Somalis believed to have fled their homeland and settled in other countries, including the United States.

Al-Shabbab faces internal divisions
Al-Shabbab, Menkhaus said, "also faces internal divisions, including tensions between hard-core members and those who joined the cause, mainly to rid their country of a foreign occupation."

Still, the FBI is working to build closer ties to the Somali community in the U.S., especially in Minnesota, a task federal agents say is complicated by deep distrust of law enforcement among Somali immigrants who suffered abuse at home by government forces. And the FBI says some have falsely been told that parents of children who head to Somalia will be imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.

Despite those rumors, many are willing to talk with federal investigators and local police, eager to prevent other young men from joining the fight in Somalia.

One Minneapolis resident, Osman Ahmed, said his nephew headed for Somalia in November, on the day the U.S. was electing a new president.

"The missing Somali-American children created anguish and fear," he said. "No one can imagine the destruction this has caused for these mothers and grandmothers. They are going through the worst time in their lives."

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