Approximately 72 American citizens, some ex-convicts, have disappeared into the ungoverned spaces of Somalia and Yemen and may pose a jihadist threat to the United States, according to a report released yesterday by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
Chairman Sen. John F. Kerry warns in the report that Al Qaeda and affiliated movements seek “to recruit American citizens to carry out terrorist attacks in the United States. These Americans are not necessarily of Arab or South Asian descent; they include individuals who converted to Islam in prison or elsewhere and were radicalized.”
The committee produced the report after interviewing American counterterrorism officials in Yemen and surrounding countries, even before the botched Christmas Day attack directed attention to the terrorist threat emanating from Yemen. The report focuses on three separate groups of American citizens that have traveled to Yemen and Somalia.
Counterterrorism officials told the committee that possibly three dozen American ex-convicts moved to Yemen, ostensibly to study Arabic, and have intermittently “dropped off the radar.” The officials fear these individuals may have traveled to terrorist training camps.
Another group of about 10 American citizens traveled to Yemen, converted, radicalized, and married Yemeni woman to remain in the country. The report describes them as the perfect jihadist recruit: blond-haired, blue-eyed, and American. They are what terrorism expert Peter Bergen calls "clean skins"
—"without previous criminal records or known terrorist associations and intimately familiar with the West."
Counterterrorism officials told the committee that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has established terrorist training camps in ungoverned areas to prepare for attacks against U.S. interests. The group’s leadership includes a Yemeni militant connected to the al Qaeda attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, who escaped from a Yemeni prison in 2006, and a Saudi citizen released from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in November 2007. He entered a Saudi rehabilitation program, and subsequently returned to militancy, according to the report. The 23-year-old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, charged with attempting to blow up Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day, confessed AQAP trained and equipped him to carry out the attack. A claim verified by the group itself.
Abdulmutallab is a further example that al Qaeda and like-minded militants are recruiting clean skins. The son of a prominent retired banker and former Nigerian government official, Abdulmutallab attended university in the United Kingdom. "The ability of al Qaeda to expand beyond its core members by recruiting non-traditional adherents was one of the lessons drawn by counterterrorism experts from the failed attempt to blow up the aircraft," report says.
Yemen is also the residence of American radical cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, who reportedly communicated with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged Fort Hood shooter who killed 13 people and wounded 32 others. “U.S. intelligence and military officials consider him to be a direct threat to U.S. interests,” the report says.
The terrorist threat from Yemen also exemplifies the mutating nature of al Qaeda.
“Due to pressures from U.S. and international intelligence and security organizations,” the report reads, “[al Qaeda] has transformed into a diffuse global network and philosophical movement composed of dispersed nodes with varying degrees of independence.”
The al Qaeda of the report is no longer the terrorist group established by Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, but one of terrorist entrepreneurs that take up the al Qaeda brand and probably have only loose connections to Bin Laden’s original group, if any at all. This threat matrix is even further complicated by self-radicalized individuals who empathize with al Qaeda’s goals and theology and want to attack the United States. The report highlights the case of 29-year-old Michael C. Finton, an ex-convict and convert to Islam,
whom the FBI arrested in September for attempting to blow up a federal courthouse in Illinois. He, like Hasan, are considered “lone wolves” by counterterrorism professionals and especially difficult to detect and disrupt.
The report warns of approximately two dozen Americans of Somali descent that have disappeared from St. Paul, Minnesota, as well as similar disappearances reported in Oregon and Ohio. The fear is these young men have traveled to their ancestral homeland to fight with the al-Shabab militia, which counterterrorism officials allege has ties to al Qaeda.
U.S. law enforcement has already arrested Somali-Americans in Minnesota returning from the fighting with al-Shabab militants. One Somali-American who joined the al-Shabab militia became the first known American suicide bomber in October 2008. The report, however, states that he attacked an opponent of al-Shabab and not a Western target.
“Officials in the region said that one of their major worries is that al Qaeda is trying to take advantage of its Somali-American recruits by establishing a larger presence in Somalia and plotting attacks on the United States or American targets,” according to the report.
Chris Heffelfinger, regional manager for the Middle East and North Africa with the private intelligence firm iJET, tells Security Management that while the report’s revelations about the American ex-convicts are troubling, it’s also reassuring that U.S. authorities are aware of the individuals and the potential threat they pose.
To counter such threats, the United States has pledged military and economic assistance to both Somalia and Yemen to fight terrorists and militant groups and stabilize the country. The report also recommends that U.S. counterterrorism strategies must not concentrate on the military approach.
“A viable counterterrorism strategy must take into account the fact that terrorism is not created in a vacuum, and its causes must be addressed,” the report states.
♦ Assistant Editor Joseph Straw contributed reporting to this story.