Lawmakers hold hearing on Al-Shabab threat to US

House Foreign Affairs Committee discusses group's recruitment, financial support and motivations behind attacks

Members of the Somali community in Minneapolis at a Sept. 27 solidarity rally to denounce Al-Shabab's attack on a Nairobi, Kenya shopping mall.
Eric Miller/Reuters

House lawmakers held a hearing Thursday on the Somali armed group Al-Shabab, which claimed credit for last month's deadly attack at an upscale mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The attack, which left more than 60 people dead, raised questions over whether the organization, which experts have described as fragmented, had developed into a more viable global threat in the years since aligning itself more closely with Al-Qaeda. 

Among the topics on which experts testified at the House Foreign Affairs Committee were Al-Shabab's recruitment efforts among Somali youth in the United States, the group's agenda of toppling Somalia's U.N.-backed transitional government, its intentions to wage more ambitious global attacks and the source of its finances. 

Seth Jones, associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corp., was among those who testified. Jones said that Al-Shabab has had success in recruiting Americans from cities like Phoenix and Minneapolis and that some of those individuals had traveled to fight with the group in Somalia. 

"The ability of the group to recruit in these areas and in particular to reach out through social media does pose a concern," Jones said.

Al-Shabab used Twitter during the four-day mall siege, which involved what officials said were 10 to 15 attackers, to disseminate what amounted to propaganda, threats and a running commentary on its version of the events taking place inside the Westgate mall. At one point it tweeted, "The mesmeric performance by the #Westgate Warriors was undoubtedly gripping, but despair not folks, that was just the premiere of Act 1."

Reacting to that series of tweets, Don Borelli, a 25-year veteran of the FBI who now runs the Soufan Group — a firm that provides security training and consultation services to governments and multinational organizations — said during the hearing that, "the Internet has created new challenges in combating the violent extremist message."

"As recently as last week we saw Al-Shabab bragging about the Westgate attack on Twitter. We need to be just as effective in using the Internet, if not more so," Borelli said. 

As a way to counter some of those efforts by Al-Shabab, Mohamed Farah, the executive director of Ka Joog, a Minneapolis-based organization aimed at tutoring and mentoring Somali youth, told lawmakers that the federal government should work with groups like his to help prevent radicalization and recruitment of vulnerable young people. 

"The No. 1 issue of our community is the recruitment of our youth," Farah said. "Why is it that we spend millions of dollars on counterterrorism, and still American citizens are disappearing and fighting alongside with Al-Shabab? 

"Ninety-nine percent of our community are law-abiding, but those few individuals are the ones we need to engage and target," Farah said. 

Relationship with Al-Qaeda

As for Al-Shabab's relationship with Al-Qaeda, experts on the panel said it was unclear how closely the two groups are working together.

"It's hard to know," said Richard Downie, deputy director and fellow at the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

Downie did say that "the two groups have been moving closer together" since Ahmed Godane, Al-Shabab's leader, took over.

"He's been trying consciously to reach out and appeal to Al-Qaeda. Whether this attack involves substantial support or coordination with Al-Qaeda funding or even received the blessing from Al-Qaeda, I certainly am not aware of that," Downie said. 

Al-Shabab's Godane has said the mall siege was retaliation for Kenya's October 2011 incursion into southern Somalia in an attempt to eliminate insurgents. 

The question of funding, and how the armed group is able to amass weapons like firearms and grenades and to obtain training, was also stressed at the hearing.

Jones testified that illegal criminal activities, including kidnapping for ransom and charcoal smuggling, provided a big financial boost to the organization. 

"Kidnapping actually can be quite profitable, as well as trafficking in a range of goods, including the charcoal smuggling, which in some cases (can yield) hundreds and thousands," Jones said. 

Al-Shabab, which formally merged with Al-Qaeda in 2012, once held parts of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, but has been on the decline since 2011 following a thwarted attempt to take over the country. 

Analysts said the Westgate mall attack was surprisingly sophisticated and indicated that Al-Shabab was still able to inflict large-scale casualties in the region. 

Officials have said five of the attackers were killed, while other suspects had been arrested, including one who died in custody. 

With wire services 

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