As people crowded into the capital for Barack Obama's inaugural celebration, senior counterterrorism officials huddled in the White House situation room, frantically trying to unravel intelligence about a possible attack on Washington.
By Tuesday afternoon, as Obama took the oath of office, the threat of a terrorist plot by the Somalia-based al-Shabab organization had been debunked, but the flurry of activity underscored growing worries about this Islamic militant group.
"I think they are a serious problem, and I don't think that we should be glib and take it lightly," said Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for African Affairs. "Are they the ones that are going to plan the next major terrorist attack in the United States and carry it out? Probably not. But could they provide some of the foot soldiers for it? Yes."
Goal is an Islamic state
The State Department considers al-Shabab a terrorist organization with links to al-Qaida, something the group denies. Al-Shabab, which means "The Youth," has been gaining ground as Somalia's Western-backed government crumbles. The group's goal is to establish an Islamic state in Somalia.
U.S. counterterrorism officials say they detect a disturbing pattern, one that mirrors al-Qaida methods and could spawn homegrown insurgents and suicide bombers in the U.S.
Counterterrorism officials suspect that al-Shabab is recruiting young men from Somali communities in Minnesota and other Midwestern states, luring them back to their home country for terrorism training and creating cells of fighters who could travel to other countries, including the United States, to launch attacks.
Four months ago, a young Somali man left Minneapolis to become a suicide bomber. He detonated a bomb he was wearing, one step in a series of coordinated attacks targeting a U.N. compound, the Ethiopian consulate and the presidential palace in Somaliland's capital, Hargeisa.
It was the first known time a U.S. citizen was a suicide bomber.
In response, the FBI stepped up efforts to reach out to community leaders in the Minneapolis area, where young Somali-American men have disappeared and are believed to have traveled to Somalia to fight with militants. FBI spokesman E.K. Wilson said that since the disappearances, the bureau has worked to expand relationships with community elders, religious leaders and others active in the local Somali population, which numbers about 80,000.
"We want them to come forward with concerns about their young people," Wilson said. "We share the same concerns. We want to help, and we need people with concerns to come forward with information."
Who's recruiting for al-Shabab?
U.S. officials aren't sure who is recruiting for al-Shabab, or whether recruits trained in Somalia have been returning to the United States. That uncertainty increased the concerns about the inaugural weekend intelligence reports. Counterterrorism officials described the time as tense as they faced a threat that appeared to grow in credibility as the hours passed.
At the National Counterterrorism Center in northern Virginia, law enforcement, intelligence and military authorities worked to dissect the threat, which emanated from a suspect in Uganda. At the White House, outgoing Bush administration officials and their incoming Obama counterparts monitored the situation while preparing for the presidential transition.
The most alarming aspect, said one former Bush official, was that they knew the inauguration would be a good target for any terrorist group, because of the huge crowds and political significance. And there already had been several cases that linked individuals, including Somalis, in the United States to terrorist acts in Somalia. Those included:
- Daniel Maldonado, a New Hampshire native, trained at a terrorist camp in Somalia alongside al-Qaida members in efforts to help overthrow the Somali government. He was captured by the Kenyan military while trying to flee Somalia and is serving a 10-year prison sentence in the U.S.
- Rupert Shumpert, who was from Seattle, was indicted on counterfeiting charges in a case that also concluded he spoke often in support for jihad. He fled the country and went to Somalia, where he was killed last year.
- Shirwa Ahmed, a young Somali-American, left his family in Minnesota and blew himself up in one of the coordinated suicide bombings in Somalia last Oct. 29.
Whelan, who has been a senior policy adviser on African issues at the Pentagon for 14 years, said the al-Shabab threat is complex and evolving, potentially becoming more serious as al-Qaida or other Islamic ideologues try to make inroads into the Somali communities in the U.S.
"There has been a lot of movement back and forth (to Somalia) for a long time, and that leaves us open to the potential that weaknesses will be exploited by those that have jihadist aims," she said. "We need to be very careful because we have seen that we are internally vulnerable because of the Somali Diaspora."
FBI: Others are being 'radicalized'
Federal authorities won't say whether they've tracked any of the Somali youth returning to the U.S. after traveling to their homeland and receiving terror training. But FBI Director Robert Mueller expressed concern Monday about efforts to recruit Somali youth and asserted that the FBI believes others are being "radicalized."
In remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations, Mueller said it's particularly unfortunate that parents who came to the United States to escape violence in their home country would see their children drawn back into violence, calling it a perversion of the immigrant's story.
He said it "raises the question of whether these young men will one day come home, and, if so, what they might undertake here."
The al-Shabab threat also has attracted attention in Congress, where the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is planning to hold a hearing on the rise of al-Shabab.