Islamic Extremist Group Recruits Americans for Civil War, Not Jihad


WASHINGTON – The Islamic extremist group in Somalia that two New Jersey men were seeking to join when they were arrested in New York on Saturday has recruited several hundred foreign fighters to help wage an intensifying civil war in a destitute East African country, American officials said on Sunday.

But interest in the movement, Al Shabab, among American recruits appeared to have waned in recent years as news spread in Somali communities in Minneapolis and other cities that some of the recruits had been killed. “Since the 2007-2008 period, when foreign fighters were flowing in, you haven’t heard about too many other Americans going there,” said Andre Le Sage, a senior research fellow who specializes in Africa at the National Defense University in Washington. About 20 Americans have joined Al Shabab, and at least half a dozen have been killed in fighting in Somalia, according to their friends and relatives. Law enforcement officials fear that the recruits, often young men in their 20s who hold American passports, could be tapped to return to the United States to carry out attacks here, though so far there is no evidence of any such plot.

The arrests Saturday were the latest in a growing number of radicalized Americans who have been charged with terrorism-related offenses. They include Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized American citizen accused in the failed car bombing in Times Square last month. “We have seen an increasing number of individuals here in the United States become captivated by extremist ideologies or causes,” John O. Brennan, President Obama’s counterterrorism chief, said last month. American counterterrorism officials have been putting more focus on safe havens in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia functioning as militant incubators. The United States has observed many ad hoc training camps in southern Somalia, intelligence officials said.

For several years, an intense civil war has raged in Somalia between a weak American-backed government and radical Islamist groups that are trying to overthrow it. The insurgents include fighters from Al Shabab, which has sent hundreds of young recruits to the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and a rival group, Hizbul Islam.

The two groups used to be close, and their hard-line Islamist ideologies, which called for amputations and public stonings for violations of Islamic law, were virtually identical. American and Somali security officials said that the leaders of both groups have worked closely with wanted terrorists of Al Qaeda in Yemen and Pakistan. Yet in the past few months, as the government geared up for a major offensive, the two groups openly clashed with each other. And in recent days there have been reports that dozens of civilians have been wounded in areas held by insurgents and areas held by the government.

Moreover, the insurgents’ harsh rules prohibiting music, television and even bras, as well as the unrelenting fighting, have steadily alienated much of Somali society, making it harder for the militants to raise money and find recruits. That did not seem to deter the two suspects arrested Saturday, Mohamed Mahmood Alessa, and Carlos Eduardo Almonte, who, according to the criminal complaint, discussed which of the rival groups to join. “Shabab is the main one,” Mr. Almonte told Mr. Alessa and an unidentified federal informer. “The main thing.”

Mr. Le Sage said that Al Shabab relied on mobilizing several thousand militia fighters from Somali clans, but that the foreigners could play important roles as commandos, intelligence agents or suicide bombers. While Al Shabab have threatened to attack East African neighbors as well as Australia, the United States and Scandinavian countries, Mr. Le Sage said the organization had not yet carried out any strikes outside of Somalia. “That’s always a cause for concern,” he added.

The two suspects may have been misled in thinking that they were going to kill Americans in Somalia; there are actually very few in that country. After 1993, when American forces were humiliated by clan militiamen in the episode that has come to be called Black Hawk Down, the United States has shown little appetite to send conventional forces back into Somalia. But Al Shabab have been telling followers, for propaganda purposes, that the United States might get involved again.

There are American contractors working in Somalia managing logistics for the African Union peacekeepers there. Somali officials have also said that American intelligence agents frequently visit Somalia in an effort to improve the capacity of Somalia’s fledgling security services.


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