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Somali-American men face terror-related charges in Minnesota

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 8 Somali-American men from Minnesota charged with federal terror-related counts
  • Accused of attempting to recruit fighters for group considered by U.S. to be terror group
  • Al-Shabaab, a Somali group is considered a terror organization by the United States
  • Court documents say 20 men trained with al-Shabaab
RELATED TOPICS
  • Somalia
  • Minnesota
  • Terrorism

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota (CNN) -- Eight Somali-American men from Minnesota are charged with federal terror-related counts involving al-Shabaab, a Somali group considered a terror organization by the United States, officials said Monday.

The alleged offenses include providing financial support to those who traveled to Somalia to fight for al-Shabaab, attending terrorist training camps operated by the group and fighting on behalf of al-Shabaab, federal prosecutors said in a release. The U.S. State Department has said al-Shabaab is believed to have ties to al Qaeda.

None of the eight is believed to be currently in the United States, and only one is in custody, the Justice Department said in a news release. Mahamud Said Omar is in Dutch custody after being arrested in the Netherlands.

The charges were filed last week, said B. Todd Jones, U.S. attorney for Minnesota, and were unsealed Monday.

"Thus far, 14 defendants have been charged in the District of Minnesota in indictments or criminal complaints ... in connection with an ongoing investigation into the recruitment of persons from U.S. communities to train with or fight on behalf of extremist groups in Somalia," authorities said. Four have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing. Two have been released pending trial.

The court documents unsealed Monday "provide our Somali community, particularly those who have lost family members to terrorist fighting in Somalia ... with some answers," Jones said.

According to the documents, about 20 young men -- all but one of Somali descent -- left Minneapolis and traveled to Somalia, "where they trained with al-Shabaab against Ethiopian forces, African Union troops, and the internationally supported transitional federal government," federal prosecutors said.

Although the investigation is ongoing, "We have reached -- indeed, passed -- a tipping point of sorts in this matter," said Ralph Boelter, special agent in charge of the FBI's Minneapolis field office.

He said he is confident the case will be fully resolved. However, both he and Jones were reluctant to divulge information beyond that contained in the charging documents, citing the continuing probe.

"I think this is the federal government's attempt at a brushback pitch," said Fran Townsend, who was a homeland security adviser in the Bush administration and is a CNN national security contributor. "That is, to put the Somali community in Minneapolis on notice that if you choose to be recruited to go over and fight, this is not some romantic foreign adventure; the United States government and the law enforcement community are watching. They know you go, they will target you and they will indict you."

There is no indication that any harm was intended to the United States, Boelter said. But with Americans holding U.S. passports attending a terrorist training camp in Somalia operated by al-Shabaab, he said, "it doesn't take great logic to assume there are some risks."

"Obviously we [U.S. officials] do believe they represent a threat, or they wouldn't have indicted them," Townsend said. Authorities do not want to see people with experience gained from Somali training camps coming into the United States, she said.

A sizable group of young men left Minneapolis -- home to the nation's largest Somali population -- last year and were feared recruited by al-Shabaab. Several of them have been reported killed, community leaders in Minnesota have said. The family of one, 20-year-old Jamal Bana, told CNN in July they learned of his death through the Internet. Another one, Shirwa Ahmed, 27, blew himself up and killed 29 others last fall in what is believed to be the first suicide bombing carried out by a naturalized U.S. citizen. The incident raised red flags throughout the U.S. intelligence community.

Al-Shabaab remains entrenched in northeast Somalia and in sections south of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, after fighting that uprooted hundreds of thousands, according to the United Nations. It was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government in March 2008.

Asked if any of the eight most recently indicted would be returned to America to stand trial, authorities said the process is complicated. A "long and convoluted extradition process" would be involved in getting the one now in Dutch custody, Jones said.

As for the others, if they are in Somalia, getting them in custody would be a formidable task, he said, given the instability of the nation and the fact that "it's very difficult for the rule of law to take hold" there. If they were apprehended for some reason, however, it's possible they could be returned to America, he said.

But "there's no indication that we have Somali-American, trained terrorists coming back to the United States today from this particular group," Boelter said.

Authorities do not know how many Minneapolis youths remain in Somalia, he said.

CNN's Chris Welch contributed to this report.

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