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Emerging Terror Threat to the U.S. from Yemen and Somalia

Updated: March 11, 2010

Posted: February 24, 2010

An emerging terror threat from Yemen and Somalia "pose[s] new challenges to the United States and other countries fighting extremism worldwide," according to a January 2010 U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations report titled "Al Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia: A Ticking Time Bomb."  


The threat, according to the report, includes an increase in the number of Americans who are traveling to Yemen and Somalia to train with Al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups, as well as the growing threat inside the U.S. among self-radicalized Americans planning attacks based on Al Qaeda ideology. 


Al Qaeda's methods have changed with America's success in dismantling the core of the organization in Afghanistan, according to the report.  Now, Al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Yemen and Somalia are planning and executing their own attacks and raising their own funds.  While their method of attacks has changed, Al Qaeda's goal of attacking the U.S. and its allies has stayed the same.  "As Al Qaeda members continue to resist U.S. and Pakistani forces along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border," the report states, "some of their comrades appear to be moving to Yemen and Somalia, where the political climate allows them to seek safe haven, recruit new members, and train for future operations."


For example, Yemen's weak central government has allowed Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen, to operate relatively freely in Yemen for the past year.  In December 2009, AQAP claimed responsibility for a failed attack on a transatlantic flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, marking the first time that the group publically tried to carry out an attack outside of the Arabian Peninsula against American interests.  Since the failed attack, the group has made several statements threatening Americans, including a message released in February 2010 calling for attacks "everywhere" against U.S. interests.


The Senate report also states that as many as 36 American ex-convicts who converted to Islam in prison claim to have arrived in Yemen in the past year to study Arabic, but some of these individuals have disappeared and are suspected of training at Al Qaeda camps.  Other Americans have also moved to Yemen, adopted a radical interpretation of Islam, and married Yemeni women in order to stay in the country.


The FBI is currently investigating the case of Sharif Mobley, an alleged Al Qaeda member from New Jersey who reportedly shot two guards at the Yemeni hospital where he was held in March 2010.  Yemeni officials have claimed that Mobley is a wanted suspect in several terrorist attacks and was among 11 men arrested the previous week at the Sanaa home of an Al Qaeda member.


Several Americans accused or convicted on terror charges traveled to Yemen before engaging in terrorism and may have been radicalized there.  For example, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, who allegedly shot two uniformed American soldiers at a military recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas, in June 2009, claimed to have ties to AQAP in a January 2010 letter to the judge presiding over his case.  Muhammad reportedly went to Yemen to teach English with the British Council in Yemen in September 2007, according to a spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy.  During his time in Yemen, Muhammad reportedly taught English and took Arabic classes at The City Institute, a group closely affiliated with the Dammaj Center.  That center, according to the Department of Defense, is an Islamic institute often used for a recruiting grounds for foreign extremists "seeking entry into paramilitary or jihad organizations."


Similarly, John Walker Lindh, who is currently serving a prison sentence for fighting with the Taliban, studied in Yemen prior to joining the Taliban.  He studied at Al-Iman University in Sanaa, a university whose founder and leader is Shaykh Abd-al-Majid al-Zindani, a U.S. Specially Designated Global Terrorist.  Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed Christmas Day bomber, also reportedly studied at Al-Iman University and may have been radicalized in Yemen.


Like Yemen, Somalia has a weak central government, which makes it easier for the terrorist group Al Shabaab to operate in the region, according to the report.  While Al Shabaab only emerged a few years ago, the country has been housing terrorists for decades.  The report notes that terrorists used Somalia as a base to recruit, train, hide and smuggle weapons in preparation for the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2002 attacks against Israeli tourists in Mombasa, Kenya.


U.S. and Somali officials are concerned, the report notes, that Somali-American recruits to Al Shabaab will plot attacks against the U.S. or American interests.  The fact that more Americans are traveling to Somalia to train with Al Shabaab increases this threat.  In 2009 alone, 14 American residents were indicted on terror-related charges linked to Al Shabaab.  At least five other former Minnesota residents were reportedly killed while fighting or training with the group between June and September 2009. 


The group has also stated its intent to target Western interests both inside and outside Somalia.  After the U.S. designated Al Shabaab as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in February 2008, former Al Shabaab spokesman Sheik Muktar Robow reportedly told the BBC in an interview, "Al-Shabaab feels honored to be included on the list. We are good Muslims and the Americans are infidels.  We are on the right path."  In April 2009, Al Shabaab fired mortar shells at a U.S. congressman as his plane lifted off from a Somalia airport. 


In addition to Al Qaeda-affiliates in Yemen and Somalia, the report also notes that there are semi-autonomous cells that help make up the Al Qaeda network in the U.S.  These cells or individuals, which usually only have peripheral ties to Al Qaeda leadership, are often radicalized in their own country before traveling overseas to receive training. Najibullah Zazi, for example, a U.S. legal resident who pleaded guilty in February 2010 to planning a terrorist attack with Al Qaeda against the New York City subways, was reportedly radicalized in the U.S. before he traveled to Pakistan for training.


The report also discusses another category of the Al Qaeda movement self-radicalized individuals who attempt to carry out violence based on an Al Qaeda ideology, rather than any direct link to the terrorist group itself.  For example, Michael Finton, a U.S.-born convert to Islam arrested in October 2009 for attempting to detonate explosives at the federal courthouse in Springfield, Illinois, was radicalized in the U.S. and never underwent any training with Al Qaeda or another terrorist group.



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