New recruits belonging to Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab rebel group celebrate during a passing out parade at a military training base in Afgoye, west of the capital Mogadishu February 17, 2011.
Stewart Bell Jul 27, 2011 – 6:50 PM ET | Last Updated: Jul 27, 2011 6:56 PM ET
A U.S. Congressional committee on terrorist recruitment of American Muslims turned its attention north on Wednesday, as a prominent Somali-Canadian leader testified that Ottawa had failed to tackle the ideology of extremists.
Ahmed Hussen, president of the Canadian Somali Congress, told U.S. lawmakers that the Canadian government was concentrating on detecting and arresting terror suspects while leaving their rhetoric unchallenged.
“The strategy of Canadian officials as they confront this phenomenon in my community has been to view this serious matter only through the prism of law enforcement,” he said. “There has not been a parallel attempt to counter the toxic anti-Western narrative that creates a culture of victimhood in the minds of members of our community.”
Mr. Hussen was the lead witness at controversial Committee on Homeland Security hearings in Washington probing radicalization within the American Muslim community. Testimony Wednesday focused on the Somali militant group Al-Shabab.
A report released by the committee says 20 Canadians and at least 40 Americans have joined Al-Shabab since 2007. Fifteen American recruits have died, including three suicide bombers, while three of the Canadians are dead, it says.
“The key finding is that there is a looming danger of American Shabab fighters returning to the U.S. to strike or helping al-Qaeda and its affiliates attack the homeland,” says the 10-page report.
Coming less than a week after terrorist attacks in Norway by an anti-Muslim extremist, the hearing was marked by sparring between Republicans and Democrats over whether to broaden the mandate to include far-right anti-government groups and white supremacists.
Democrats suggested the committee’s scope was discriminatory and narrow but the chairman, Rep. Peter King, dismissed the concerns, saying, “there is no equivalency in the threat to our homeland from a deranged gunman and the international terror apparatus of al-Qaeda and its affiliates.”
A member of Canada’s Cross Cultural Roundtable on Security, Mr. Hussen said extremists were exploiting “growing pains” in Canada’s 200,000-strong Somali community, which he said suffers from greater poverty and unemployment than most Canadians.
“A minority of them become alienated and fall victim to a narrative that turns them against Canada and the United States, the very countries that have sustained them and also gave refuge to their parents as they fled the brutal civil war in Somalia,” he said in his written comments.
“This dangerous and constant anti-Western narrative is fed to them by radicals in our community who do not hesitate to use these vulnerable youth as gun fodder in their desire to establish a base for the al-Qaeda terrorist group in Somalia.”
He said the government needed to support community leaders who encourage integration and a commitment to the rule of law, while reminding Muslims that Canada is one of the few places in the world where they can freely worship no matter what their denomination.
The United States and Canada are both experiencing similar problems with radicalization within their large ethnic Somali communities. Al-Shabab, which means The Youth in Arabic, has been fighting to seize control of Somalia and impose its version of Islamic law.
As part of its campaign, the group has been appealing to Somali youths in Western countries to join what it calls a jihad. The figures cited by the committee regarding the number of Canadian Al-Shabab members recruited and killed are consistent with those used by Canadian security officials.
Canada outlawed Al-Shabab last year because of concerns it was recruiting young Somali-Canadians. In one high-profile case, six youths left Toronto in 2009. An extremist website later reported one of them, a University of Toronto student, had been killed in battle.
On March 29, police arrested another Toronto man at Pearson airport as he was allegedly leaving Canada to join Al-Shabab. Mohamed Hassan Hersi, 25, faces two terrorism-related charges but was released on bail.
The committee report says Al-Shabab had formed “alarming operational ties” with al-Qaeda and its Yemeni affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It said American recruits had been trained by senior al-Qaeda operatives.
“With Al-Shabab’s large cadre of American jihadis and unquestionable ties to al-Qaeda, particularly its alliance with AQAP, we must face the reality that Al-Shabab is a growing threat to our homeland,” Rep. King said.
But ranking committee member Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, disagreed, saying Al-Shabab had never attacked the United States. “Al-Shabab does not appear to present any danger to this homeland.” He said most of the Americans who had joined the group would be identified and arrested upon their return.