In the summer of 2008, a battle raged about 300 miles south of Mogadishu. There, along the banks of the Jubba River, rival militias fought for control of a port city.
After days of savage conflict, the victors danced in the bloodied streets. Four years earlier, the Islamist group Al-Shabaab, "the youth," had been just another obscure gang, thugs for hire in Somalia's civil war. Now, they were seasoned warriors, the conquerors of Kismayo.
Al-Shabaab hasn't looked back since. Today,the group aims to be a world-class terrorist outfit, recruiting fighters under the banner of religious holy war. They are more than just a local band of fanatics. They may be plotting the next 9/11.
When you start to "connect the dots," (the phrase made famous by the 9/11 Commission), you find there are a lot of dots to connect.
Al-Shabaab is no home-grown terrorist boy's club. Various news sources report "foreign fighters" have joined their ranks, some in high-level leadership positions. That suggests that group has an international perspective and sees itself as part of the global Islamist campaign.
Furthermore, government intelligence officials find unambiguous links between al Qaeda and Al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab seems to see itself as the East African franchise of Osama Bin Laden International. Last month, the group released a video featuring a Somali training camp and members pledging their allegiance to Bin Laden.
Al-Shabaab's ambitions may extend far beyond Somalia's borders. This summer, Australian security services busted a terrorist cell with a stockpile of automatic weapons and plans to attack an Aussie military base.
Several members of the cell were of Somali origin and linked to Al-Shabaab. Though an Al-Shabaab spokesman denied any connections to the conspirators, the Australian government promptly banned the outfit from the country.
The Islamist group also holds a grudge against America. In a September 14 raid in Somalia, U.S. forces killed Saleh Ali Nabhan, a key Al-Shabaab leader and trainer and the group's liaison to al Qaeada. Al-Shabaab vowed revenge. The group is also still smarting over the rescue of an American merchant marine captain who had been held captive by Somali pirates.
Most troubling, Al-Shabaab definitely has links to the United States. There is a significant Somali Diaspora here. Most came in the wake of the civil war. Somali communities have sprung up across the country. About 25,000 live in Minnesota, where hundreds of Somali-owned businesses dot the state.
Al-Shabaab has been recruiting fighters from the U.S. to help wage their holy war. An American Somali recently took part in the suicide bombing of an African Union peacekeeping base in Mogadishu. The question now is whether Al-Shabaab will use its network to launch attacks here. U.S. officials think they might.
Sensing weakness in the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, the Islamist group may believe Bin Laden's pronouncement that America has become a "paper tiger." If so, now would be the time for them to strike.
Stopping any Al-Shabaab operation here will require solid counterterrorism operations and non-stop intelligence sharing. In particular, we are going to need the tools authorized under the Patriot Act which have helped foil at least 26 intended attacks on the U.S. since 9/11.
Some of these authorities, such as "roving wire taps" that let law enforcement agencies track suspected terrorists as they jump from cell phone to cell phone, are now up for renewal in Congress.
Given all the misinformation that's been spread by opponents of the Patriot Act, let me make one more important point right here. It would be a terrible idea to regard Somali immigrants as terrorist suspects. Profiling any group because of a few bad apples is simply un-American.
Somalis are professionals, teachers, barbers, factory workers, cab drivers, soccer moms, and members of the PTA. Communities should be working with them, building stronger ties, fighting extremist ideas, and helping them share the American dream. That's counter radicalization, American-style.
James Jay Carafano is Senior Research Fellow in national security policy at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in the Washington Examiner