The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has found some of the 20 or so Somali-American men missing from the Minneapolis, Minnesota, area, who are believed to have gone to fight in Somalia's civil war, on the popular social networking Web site, Facebook, according to Fox News.
The FBI would not reveal to Fox News the names of the men or answer how many have been found on the site. The agency also would not tell whether or not they've conducted any "investigative activity" on Facebook but did say it does not monitor Facebook as routine procedure.
Under the right circumstances—a court order, a search warrant, or a subpoena—Facebook will help provide law enforcement information on individuals that have profiles on its site.
A spokesman for Facebook, which has more than 175 million users worldwide, said the social networking site can be helpful to an FBI investigation, providing information from a user's page, email addresses associated with a user, or even the location from which a user last accessed Facebook.
"There's a lot of information that we can provide to law enforcement," said Barry Schnitt, Facebook's senior manager for corporate communications and public policy. But he insisted information can only be provided "after going through the proper legal processes."
Federal officials worry that these men were recruited in the Minneapolis area to fight for the al Qaeda-aligned al-Shabaab militia, which the government listed as a terrorist organization last year.
This presents law enforcement and counterterrorism officials with two additional questions: Could these young men return battle-hardened and conduct terrorist operations in the United States? Or could alleged recruiting activity around the Somali community of Minneapolis sow the seeds for a future homegrown terrorist attack?
Facebook acknowledges that its site could be used to spread "dangerous ideas" and requires users to sign an agreement that they will not post any threatening pictures or messages on their profile or the profiles of others. Facebook is a self-policing community and relies on its users to flag anything offensive on the site.
The fear that social networking sites, and the Internet more generally, could be used to radicalize people is overblown, according to experts.
"Readers of jihadist websites are mostly Muslims who may sympathize with but are unaffiliated with al-Qa`ida or al-Shabaab," Andrew Liepman, deputy director of intelligence for the National Counterterrorism Center, told lawmakers (pdf) during a hearing last week on the missing Somali-American men. "Thus, such sites draw little attention from the mainstream Muslim population, which markedly limits the reach and effect of jihadist propaganda."
Also last week, the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, a multinational think tank, released a report (pdf) that argues "the Internet can play a role in radicalization, but that so far it has not been the principal driver of the process."