The biggest domestic terror challenge for the Department of Justice and the FBI is the recruitment of Americans by terrorist organizations such as al-Shabaab. The organization’s ability to attack international targets is increased because of the access that American passports allow. In theory, it is easier for Americans to travel abroad and almost undetected to conduct a number of planning operations, including providing material support and financing. Secondly, the recruitment of Americans is beneficial to the terrorist organization because they can identify and provide valuable intelligence on hard and soft targets inside the U.S. Finally, American recruits have the ability to enhance al-Shabaab’s propaganda efforts and attract even more English-speakers. Al-Shabaab has released numerous English-language recruiting videos, statements, and communiqués. I’m told by DOJ sources that U.S. counterterrorism operations are one step behind the increased efforts by al-Shabaab and other organizations. While al-Shabaab is not alone, it is recruiting at full steam inside the USA.
FBI counterterrorism operations are challenged by its intricate grassroots recruiting network. In August 2010 the FBI arrested 14 individuals – mostly American citizens – of allegedly supporting or attempting to support al-Shabaab. The FBI caught this cell but it also exposed the success al-Shabaab achieved in recruiting aspiring Western militants. In a statement on the arrests, Attorney General Eric Holder described al-Shabaab’s recruiting network as a “deadly pipeline that has routed funding and fighters” from the U.S. to Somalia. But this wasn’t the whole story.
Al-Shabaab has uniquely dangerous tentacles because approximately 200,000 Somalis live inside the U.S. – most of whom have assimilated into the American culture – making the U.S. fertile ground for recruitment. Recruitment of Americans by Islamist terrorist organizations is a serious threat to the U.S. as well as a major challenge to domestic counterterrorism operations. Al-Shabaab’s success rate is steadier and higher than that of the U.S. counterterrorism methods. At some point in the future, they will likely outpace the FBI and carry out a deadly attack somewhere in the world, aided by the fact they were Americans.