By Jeremy Herb and Carlo Muñoz - 09/25/13 10:00 AM EDT
The brazen terrorist attack carried out by al-Shabaab militants at a Kenyan mall is stirring concerns about the Somali-based terror group’s potential reach into the United States.
The al Qaeda-linked group has openly recruited Somali-Americans to join its ranks, bringing them overseas to train and fight in Somalia.
Some lawmakers and Africa experts say the multiday assault in Kenya, which ended Tuesday, shows that the al Qaeda affiliate has broader global ambitions than previously realized.
While there’s no evidence to suggest the group has set its sights on attacks in the U.S., al-Shabaab’s recruiting within the United States and other Western countries is more active than any other al Qaeda group, suggesting it could become a threat to the U.S. homeland.
“This is a real concern because al-Shabaab has a real recruitment process. And how did I hear this? I heard it from them on television,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“Their imams go out; they deal with the young Somalis who are here in the United States. They take them to certain mosques, and over a period of time, they’re able to concentrate their antagonism against the infidels,” she said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that the Kenya terrorist attack is the latest sign that al Qaeda groups will not go away quietly despite U.S. and international efforts to defeat them.
“I think it shows the reach of al Qaeda, and this notion that al Qaeda is decimated and on the run — we see example after example of the resilience of al Qaeda,” McCain said.
Some lawmakers and experts, however, were skeptical about whether the attack signals the strength of al-Shabaab and al Qaeda. Al-Shabaab has suffered a string of stinging defeats in Somalia at the hands of African forces, backed by U.S. military and intelligence support.
They also noted that the terror group has been struggling in Somalia over the past year and that the shopping mall was an easy target.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), who heads the House Armed Services subcommittee on emerging threats and intelligence, said the attacks weren’t a “tipping point” to al-Shabaab becoming a major terror threat to the United States.
He said the mall attack was a last-ditch effort by the terror group that was “on the verge of being defeated” in Somalia.
“When you pin a rattlesnake into a corner, they are going to strike out,” Thornberry told The Hill.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said that the Nairobi attack has “dramatized” the concern that al-Shabaab could branch out from a regional terror threat to one with global reach.
“I have always had that concern,” Levin said Tuesday.
He said that if Americans were, in fact, involved with the al-Shabaab attack, it would be “increased proof that they are becoming a transnational problem.”
There have been numerous cases of Somali-Americans being recruited and returning to fight alongside al-Shabaab in Somalia, particularly from major Somali immigrant communities, like the one in Minnesota.
Peter Bergen, director of national security studies at the New America Foundation, wrote Tuesday that 15 Americans have died fighting for al-Shabaab.
One of the most high-profile Americans fighting in Somalia, Omar Hammami, was reportedly killed earlier this month.
“So far, what has been the model of operation is the men who have been recruited in the U.S. and Britain have gone to Somalia, fighting in Somalia, and have not conducted attacks in the U.S.,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that part of the reason al-Shabaab recruits foreign fighters is the large diaspora that’s occurred amid two decades of instability.
“It’s natural that al-Shabaab would seek to recruit from outside because there’s such a pool of talent, I guess, they’d see outside the country,” Downie said.
Downie said that he thought it was “a leap” to suggest that the attack in Kenya meant the terror group’s next step was an attack on the U.S.
Thornberry said that the failure by U.S. intelligence to predict the Nairobi attack exposed some shortfalls in Washington’s efforts to track the growing strain of Islamic extremism in Africa.
The intelligence community “has not ignored Africa,” he said, but there has been “a tendency to say they are just a regional threat” and miss signs that African terror groups may be expanding beyond their borders.
U.S. military and intelligence officials are still having significant difficulty gaining any insight into the network of African extremist groups who are rapidly gaining ground on the continent.
The relatively small network of intelligence assets Washington currently has in place in Africa pales in comparison to the number of similar American assets in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere in the Mideast.
The Pentagon already has two major special operations task forces in Africa, known as Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara and Joint Special Operations Task Force-Horn of Africa.
Levin said that he did not think the Nairobi attack should be seen as a green light for increased U.S. military intervention in Africa.
He said the key to any potential changes in U.S. military posture would be to first determine “what level of involvement” would be needed from U.S. forces to rein in groups like al-Shabaab in Africa.