Skip to content

​photo by from flickr ​​​​

Experts Testify on Al-Shabaab Before the Homeland Security Committee

Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, held the third installment of hearings on radicalization of Muslim Americans this morning. The committee heard from a panel of speakers who were there to provide insight into the scope of the threat of al-Shabaab--a terrorist group fighting to overthrow the government of Somalia.

According to the National Counterterrorism Center, "While most of [al-Shabaab's] fighters are predominantly interested in the nationalistic battle against the TFG and not supportive of global jihad, al-Shabaab’s senior leadership is affiliated with al-Qa‘ida, and certain extremists aligned with al-Shabaab are believed to have trained and fought in Afghanistan. Al-Shabaab has issued statements praising Usama Bin Ladin and linking Somalia to al-Qa‘ida’s global operations."

It is that affiliation, plus the success that al-Shabaab has had in recruiting some Somali-American youth that led King to look at the threat the group represents in the United States. Some members of the committee criticized the hearings, however, saying their scope was too narrow and discriminatory in addition to lacking any officials from federal or state law enforcement agencies to provide testimony. Witnesses included Ahmed Hussen, Canadian Somali Congress National President; Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and senior editor of The Long War Journal; William Anders Folk, former assistant United States attorney, District of Minnesota; and Tom Smith, chief of police, Saint Paul, Minnesota.

During research prior to the hearing, the committee found that al-Shabaab-related federal prosecutions were the largest number and most significant upward trend in homegrown terror cases filed by the Justice Department in the past two years.

“Al-Shabaab now has more capability than ever to strike in the U.S. homeland,” King said.

Experts on the panel agreed that available information indicates that the group is an emerging threat and that existing programs to fight al-Shabaab recruitment in the United States were needed, but couldn’t comment on the group’s operational capabilities. This remained a bone of contention for some committee members who said the panel lacked any specific intelligence or testimony from the CIA, FBI, or other law enforcement agencies.

“If you look at the numbers of indictment and investigations, those numbers exceed a comparable number of indictments in terms of other terrorist organizations. The high number of indictments we’re seeing indicates a real threat,” said Folk. “But just because there is a large number doesn’t mean it’s a small or a large threat,” he added.

It’s known that about 20 Somalis were recruited from the Minneapolis and St. Paul areas and linked up with al-Shabaab overseas between 2007 and 2009. The committee investigation found that 40 Americans have joined al-Shabaab.

“Not al-Qaeda, nor any of its other affiliates, have come close to drawing so many Muslim-Americans and Westerners to jihad,” King said in a prepared statement. And because of the Somali group’s ties to al-Qaeda, the latter can be used as a benchmark to hypothesize the former’s capabilities.

“We’re hearing the same message from al-Shabaab that we were hearing in al-Qaeda. They have adopted an al-Qaeda training model and have the same ideology, so the potential that they carry is the same as al-Qaeda,” Folk said.

​Smith and Joscelyn both testified that in the past, al-Shabaab has recruited people that weren’t of Somali descent.

Some members of the committee said too much focus was being put on addressing Muslim radicalization when the focus should be on addressing radicalization of all at-risk groups. People of all kinds are targets of radicalization, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) said, suggesting that having group-specific hearings could set an arbitrary precedent. Lawmakers say the focus on Muslims singles them out and ignores other forms of domestic extremism.

“For us to focus on Muslim communities opens us up to disdain of others and perpetuates the notions we’re trying to combat. I don’t see the same types of resources put into communities that are poor where young people are being jumped into gangs, and it’s just as valid,” Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) said.

"What’s next? [Hearings on] radicalization of grocery stores, radicalization of bingo halls,” Richmond said.

To which King responded, “People in bingo games and grocery stores have not killed 3,000 Americans.There’s only one group that’s killed 3,000 Americans.” He later clarified that he meant al-Qaeda and not Muslims.

As to actually assessing al-Shabaab’s threat, Folk may have provided the closest thing to a real answer: Right now, al-Shabaab is more aspirational than operational.

“We don’t know when they’re going to cross the line from aspiration to operation. That can’t be predicted in any force of certainty…groups that might be aspirational today could be operational tomorrow,” he said.