TOPICS > Politics

U.S. Charges 8 With Aiding Somali War Recruiting

November 23, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Federal prosecutors in Minnesota on Monday announced charges against eight more people in an ongoing investigation into young Somali-Americans leaving the United States to fight with a terror group in Somalia. Margaret Warner reports.

JIM LEHRER: And still to come on the “NewsHour” tonight: what next for health care reform; India’s economy; and Dorothea Lange’s photographs.

That follows new charges of terrorism.

Margaret Warner has the latest.

MARGARET WARNER: Federal authorities today announced those charges against eight new suspects for taking part in recruiting dozens of young Muslim-American men to join an extremist insurgency in Somalia.

The indictments, unsealed in Minneapolis, accuse the eight of providing financing and recruits for the Al-Shabab group, which is fighting to unseat the Somali government. The U.S. calls Al-Shabab a terrorist organization and says it has ties to al-Qaida. This brings to 14 the number who have been charged in the yearlong probe.

And we get more on this story now from Devlin Barrett of the Associated Press. He covers the Justice Department in Washington.

Devlin, thanks for being here.

First of all, just tell us about this recruitment network. How did it allegedly work?

DEVLIN BARRETT, Associated Press: Well, according to the charges, what was going on was, there were people moving in and around the Somali-American community, particularly in Minneapolis, drawing in young men, and saying, you should go fight for your native homeland.

In many cases, these are men who are either legal residents of the United States or, in some cases, citizens of the United States. And the reason why the FBI became so concerned is, it was a — it seemed to be a much broader attempt at attempting to radicalize people in the United States than they have really seen before.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how did the Justice Department first get wise to this?

DEVLIN BARRETT: It’s an interesting facet of this. Essentially, the families of many of the young men came forward to ask that — for the FBI’s help in finding them. You know, many of these older relatives of the young men were concerned that this was going on. They had inklings, but no concrete facts to base that on.

And they came to FBI asking for help to find their sons.

MARGARET WARNER: Because these young men had just disappeared.

DEVLIN BARRETT: In many cases, yes, they had just essentially packed up and gone. And the families feared the worst.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, has it been absolutely established that, as the charges lay out, that — that some of these young men at least have shown up in Somalia, they have gone to terrorist training camps, they have even engaged in combat?

DEVLIN BARRETT: Yes, there is one particularly gruesome piece of evidence that the FBI has tested. And that is, the remains of one of the men were recovered from one of his suicide attacks.

And they conclusively…

MARGARET WARNER: This is a suicide attack in Somalia?

DEVLIN BARRETT: In Somalia, yes, exactly. There was a series of coordinated suicide attacks in Somalia. And one of the bombers, some of his remains were recovered and tested. And they proved conclusively that that, in fact, was the young man who had come from the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the eight men charged today who are accused of helping to do this recruitment and financing, were they American citizens? Were they residents of the Minneapolis area? Or I gather there were some others in Columbus, Ohio, that disappeared.

DEVLIN BARRETT: They’re — by and large, I think most of the descriptions I have seen describe them as legal residents. So, there may be a citizen or two in that mix, but I believe they’re, by and large, essentially legal residents of the United States.

And that’s obviously worrisome for investigators, who always think about, well, if you’re training someone to conduct terrorism, and they have a legal right to return to the United States, that’s something to worry about very much.

In this case so far, all they have seen are folks who are engaging in this activity and joining this group over in Somalia, but they are very cognizant of the notion that some of these people could come back. And they have a very dangerous skill set.

An ongoing investigation

MARGARET WARNER: Now, I noticed that the -- I guess he was the assistant U.S. attorney said, well, this investigation is ongoing.

So, do they think they have kind of got the outlines of it, or is this still unfolding?

DEVLIN BARRETT: I think they understand the behavior involved. I think they're very much still looking for other people and other participants in this much broader activity.

And, you know, they have -- they have got investigations going, not just in Minneapolis, but in Ohio and in Massachusetts and in California. And if you look at the court documents, there are clearly other people involved today who they would prefer not to name at this point that they're looking very hard at.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, there are six that have already -- had been charged before today. What's happened to them?

DEVLIN BARRETT: A few of them, I believe maybe four of them, have pleaded guilty in -- one of the eight today has actually been arrested in the Netherlands, and the U.S. is seeking to extradite that person.

That person, according to the FBI, is important, because that person was providing both financing and doing recruiting. It was more than just going to fight himself, according to the FBI, in that person's case.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the -- the young men who have left, I gather there are at least 20, maybe more. What else -- what did they have in common? And I think -- did I read somewhere that a lot of them had come here as very young children, as refugees?

DEVLIN BARRETT: I believe that's right. I believe, in many of these cases, you have young men who you might say, for all intents and purposes, are American-raised, but they have a strong emotional family tie to their home country.

And, if you think about it, their home country has essentially fallen apart in the time they have been away. That may be a compelling reason to want to go back and help your home country, but, obviously, the government doesn't want you doing that by -- by joining terrorism groups and fighting, for example, Ethiopian soldiers.

Threat to the U.S.?

MARGARET WARNER: But there's no evidence at all, the Justice Department doesn't have, that they -- that they or their recruiters had any designs on then using them as agents to come back and mount attacks here?

DEVLIN BARRETT: There's nothing to suggest that so far. But that is always ever-present in the minds of the FBI officials and the prosecutors, that creating a group of people with these skills who have a legal right of reentry into the United States is, in their minds, a dangerous and worrisome proposition.

Having said that, it's clear from the court documents that there are some people who are cooperating with the investigators in this case.

MARGARET WARNER: And the eight named today, you said one is already under arrest in the Netherlands. I gather none of them are believed to be here in the U.S. now.

DEVLIN BARRETT: As of right now, I don't believe so, no. I believe they are essentially being looked for in other parts of the globe.

MARGARET WARNER: And, so, what does happen to them? I mean, why unseal these charges now?

DEVLIN BARRETT: I think, one, it's not a surprise to many of the subjects of this investigation that they're under investigation.

One of the interesting things about this case is that they're investigating and bringing charges as the people they are investigating are still trying to do the conduct that they're under investigation for. So, there's a bit of a game going on, in terms of, what can the investigators find and who can they catch, and the people on the other side, the alleged conspirators, in terms of, what can they still do while being looked at by the FBI?

MARGARET WARNER: Devlin Barrett of the Associated Press, thank you.