Mohamed Sheikh Nor, File, Associated Press
NAIROBI, Kenya — The October al-Qaida video shows a light-skinned man handing out food to families displaced by famine in Somalia. But the masked man is not Somali, or even African — he's a Wisconsin native who grew up in San Diego.
A handful of young Muslims from the U.S. are taking high-visibility propaganda and operational roles inside an al-Qaida-linked insurgent force in Somalia known as al-Shabab. While most are from Minnesota, which has the largest Somali population in the nation, al-Shabab members include a Californian and an Alabaman with no ancestral ties to Somalia.
"They are being deployed in roles that appear to be shrewdly calculated to raise al-Shabab's international profile and to recruit others, especially those from the United States and other English-speaking countries," said Anders Folk, a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted suspected al-Shabab supporters in Minnesota.
Officials fear another terrorist attack in East Africa. Kenya announced on Jan. 7 that it had thwarted attempted al-Shabab attacks over the holidays. The same day, Britain's Foreign Office urged Britons in Kenya to be extra vigilant, warning that terrorists there may be "in the final stages of planning attacks."
More than 40 people have traveled from the U.S. to Somalia to join al-Shabab since 2007, and 15 of them have died, according to a report from the House Homeland Security Committee. Federal investigations into al-Shabab recruitment in the U.S. have centered on Minnesota, which has more than 32,000 Somalis.
At least 21 men have left Minnesota to join al-Shabab in that same time. The FBI has confirmed that at least two of them died in Somalia as suicide bombers. A U.S. citizen is suspected in a third suicide bombing, and another is under investigation in connection with a fourth bombing on Oct. 29 that killed 15 people.
The star of the al-Qaida video was Jehad Mostafa, 30, a Californian who handed out food using the name Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir, according to the SITE Monitoring Service. The Washington Post reported last year that Mostafa served as top lieutenant to Saleh Nabhan, a senior al-Qaida operative killed by Navy SEALs in a helicopter attack inside Somalia in 2010.
Mostafa and the Alabaman, Omar Hammami, 27, are among about a dozen men who have been charged in federal court in the U.S. and are believed to be in Somalia.
The Americans appear to have been motivated by the Ethiopian army's intervention in Somalia in 2006, which they saw as an invasion. However, many experts believe it's only a matter of time before al-Shabab turns its wrath on the U.S., which in February 2008 designated it as a terrorist organization. The group killed 76 people in terrorist bombings in Uganda in 2010 during the World Cup final.
U.S. military commanders fear that Americans inside al-Shabab could train as bombmakers and use their U.S. passports to carry out attacks in the United States.
E.K. Wilson, the agent overseeing the FBI's investigation in Minneapolis, said he cannot comment on whether there is an outstanding order to capture or kill Americans fighting for al-Shabab. The FBI has publicly said the Americans should return to the U.S.
It's a mystery what caused Mostafa, a young man whom many remember as mild and friendly, to join an extremist group.
Mostafa grew up in San Diego and graduated from the University of California San Diego. Imam Abdeljalil Mezgouri of the Islamic Center of San Diego, the city's largest mosque, said Mostafa was a respectful teen and good student.
"He was a very quiet, very loving boy. He didn't talk too much but when he did talk, people liked him," said Mezgouri.
Mezgouri said Mostafa got married in his early 20s to a woman he believed was from Somalia.
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