Somali-Americans told lawmakers on Capitol Hill today that they were not aware of any current recruiting in the United States of young Somali men to engage in fighting overseas and said they suspected some employees at a mosque in Minneapolis had been behind just such a scheme.
Osman Ahmed, whose nephew Burhan Hassan left for Somalia in November 2008, said employees at two mosques in the Minneapolis area may have been behind the cases of some young men going to fight in Somalia.
"The management of those two mosques have a influence to the community," Ahmed told the Senate's Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs today. "And that's what we believe, after 2006, started recruiting the kids and also spreading their ideology of extremists."
At a hearing today in Washington, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., called the ongoing investigation the "most serious instance of homegrown terrorism in the United States."
ABC News has confirmed that federal investigators have recently issued grand jury subpoenas in the case.
The cases of young Somali-Americans going back to Somalia to fight with the designated terrorist group Al-Shabab have received increased attention from the FBI and DHS officials in the past few months. The trend gained attention after Shirwa Ahmed, a naturalized U.S. citizen, killed himself in an Oct. 28, 2008 suicide bombing.
"We believe he was recruited here in the United States and that others may have been radicalized," FBI Director Robert Mueller said last month.
Today, Abdirahman Mukhtar, who attended school with Shirwa Ahmed, said he was not aware of any active recruiting in the Somali community and told the committee, "I don't know how he ended up in that situation."
"When learning about Shirwa role as a suicide bomber, people were shocked and angry, because it goes against the Somali culture and it is also inherently anti-Islamic," Mukhtar said.
According to law enforcement and U.S. intelligence officials, as many as 20 young Somali men have traveled from the U.S. to Somalia, causing concern both among security officials and members of Somali communities.
"There obviously are people here in the United States recruiting young Somali-Americans to go over to Somalia to be trained to fight," Lieberman said.
Some U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials also worry Al-Shabab could merge with al Qaeda, as has happened with other regional terrorist groups around the globe.
"We are concerned that if a few Somali American youth could be motivated to engage in such -- such activities overseas, fellow travelers could return to the U.S. and engaging terrorist activities here," said Andrew Liepman, deputy director of intelligence at the National Counterterrorism Center told the committee.
Though he said there is no credible reporting that that is happening, Liepman added, "We do worry that there is the potential that these individuals could be indoctrinated by al Qaeda while they're in Somalia and then returned to the United States with the intention to -- to conduct attacks."
Philip Mudd, FBI associate executive assistant director, noted that other U.S. citizens -- not of Somali descent -- have previously been found to have been in the region with the terror group.
"This is a jihad issue that's not simply restricted to American-Somalis," he said.
Mudd testified that when Ethiopia initially became involved in peacekeeping efforts in Somalia in 2006, Somalis viewed it as an infringement on their country. That's when the first Somali-Americans may have begun to travel to Somalia.
"We saw a change when Ethiopia invaded," he said. "People want to go and protect their country."
Somalia has been racked by years of violence between Al-Shabab Islamic insurgents and transitional governments, resulting in thousands of deaths. U.S. officials say some extremists are drawn to the lawless area to establish Sharia, or Islamic law.
"You're talking about tens of people who are going over in pretty difficult environments over there, not for high-end terrorist training, but to become, in some cases, cannon fodder," Mudd said today.
"No one can imagine the destruction this issue has caused for these mothers and grandmothers, they are going through the worst time in their lives," Osman Ahmed said today.
"Imagine how these parents feel when their children are returned back to the country were they originally fled from the chaos, genocide, gang rape and lawlessness," Ahmed said.
"Bottom line is that there is a problem here but it also threatens the American dream," said Lieberman.