(WASHINGTON) — Young American men continue to slip through a terrorist recruiting pipeline from the homeland to join the ranks of jihadists half a world away in East Africa, with two going as recently as three months ago, according to federal officials.
The FBI confirmed that in July two young men disappeared from their neighborhoods in Minneapolis and are believed to have traveled to Somalia to join al-Shabaab, the embattled al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group.
Under “Operation Rhino,” for years the FBI has been investigating what has been described as a recruiting pipeline from the Twin Cities, which boast large Somali immigrant populations, to Somalia. Both top U.S. officials and at least one prominent member of al-Shabaab said Americans account for dozens of the terror group’s fighters. A 2011 congressional report put the number around 40.
“Minnesota represented!” writes American-born rapping jihadist Omar Hammami in an autobiography posted online in May, though he claimed most of the U.S. recruits were already dead. “Those Minnesota brother[s] have almost all left their mark on the [jihad] and most have received martyrdom, while the rest are still waiting.”
Kyle Loven, chief division counsel for the FBI’s Minneapolis field office, said recruits going to Somalia from Minnesota “continues to be a matter of grave concern and the FBI remains fully committed to resolving this situation.”
Al-Shabaab has suffered several recent defeats at the hands of African military forces and lost its final urban stronghold in Somalia earlier this month. But Western and Somali security experts told ABC News they are concerned such defeats may tempt the terror group into abandoning insurgency in Somalia for a renewed focus on international terrorism.
An African Union official said there is worry that the same fighters driven out of Somalia could launch attacks abroad, from Kenya and Uganda to the U.S.
During congressional testimony in January, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper listed al-Shabaab as one of the most significant terror threats to the homeland, in part due to a “foreign fighter cadre that includes U.S. passport holders… [who] may have aspirations to attack inside the United States.”
U.S. Special Representative for Somalia James Swan told reporters last month that al-Shabaab’s recent losses caused some of the terror group’s foreign fighters to flee, but Swan did not know if that meant they were abandoning jihad or simply heading to a different al Qaeda-affiliated group in another country such as Yemen.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Paul Cruickshank and Michael Pearson, CNN