September 25, 2013

Officials grow skeptical of Maine link to terror attack

Investigators have yet to issue an official denial, but community leaders know of no connection.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

FBI officials said Tuesday that they have been meeting regularly with Portland's Somali residents since 2009, but not in response to any reports of recruitment efforts by al-Shabab, the terrorist group that attacked a shopping mall in Kenya on Saturday.

click image to enlarge

Abdullahi Ahmed, a science teacher at Deering High School and a member of the local Somali community, speaks with the press after a meeting with Congresswoman Chellie Pingree at the Islamic Society of Portland on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Mohamud Barre, Executive Director of the Somali Culture and Development Association of Maine, holds American and Somalian flags as members of the local Somali community speak with the press after a meeting with Congresswoman Chellie Pingree at the Islamic Society of Portland on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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Somali leaders said they know of no efforts by terrorist groups to recruit in Maine, or of any surge in FBI activity locally that would suggest such reports are credible.

A list published Sunday on Twitter that purported to name 17 terrorists and their home towns or states included a person from Maine. That immediately focused attention on the state's Somali population.

"So far, we don't know anyone from Portland, Maine, who is involved in this," said Abdullahi Ahmed, a science teacher at Deering High School.

"We've pre-empted that. ... We tell our kids, as parents and religious teachers, (terrorism) is not Islamic and it is not Somali tradition," Ahmed said.

His remarks followed a meeting at the Islamic Society of Portland with U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who represents southern Maine, including the Somali community in Portland.

Pingree said there has been no confirmation of a Maine link to the attack, and a growing number of people in Washington are saying it is not credible.

"My office has been in contact with the (Department of) Homeland Security, the FBI ... Some of the same sources that put it out there have been discredited," Pingree said, though there has yet to be a concrete denial by investigators. "I don't think there's any truth to the rumor we've heard."

She also said she is aware of no increased FBI presence in Portland.

About a dozen Somalis attended the meeting with Pingree, including imams from the three Somali mosques in Maine, leaders of their civic organizations, business people and one woman whose son is in the Navy.

Pingree said she wanted to hear firsthand about local Somalis' feelings and experiences, since Maine was mentioned in connection with the terrorist attack in Nairobi.

"They shared the feelings, as we all do in Maine, of the horror at what happened in Kenya," Pingree said outside the mosque on Portland Street. "The people who came to Maine came here to escape the violence of al-Shabab."

Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of MaineToday Media, which publishes the Portland Press Herald.

The terrorist group's attack on the mall in Nairobi, which killed at least 62 people, led some analysts to suggest the FBI should look for any radicalization and recruitment efforts in areas in the United States where Somalis have settled, including Maine.

The list of alleged attackers was initially attributed to a Twitter account run by al-Shabab, but the veracity of that has been called into question.

Some experts have said that al-Shabab may try to use such a release, even if it's not true, to get attention for its cause.

Several news organizations have since said the report was a fake. But the FBI has not said so, and members of Maine's congressional delegation have not been told that it was false.

Officials with the FBI and the State Department said Tuesday that they had no new information to release.

The FBI field office in Boston did describe an ongoing engagement effort with Somalis in Portland that started in 2009. The effort started around the time when young Somali men in Minnesota were being recruited by al-Shabab to return to Somalia and fight.

Special Agent Gregory Comcowich said the outreach wasn't done because the FBI had any information about recruitment efforts in the city. He said the bureau, like other law enforcement agencies, relies on people in the community to keep it informed.

(Continued on page 2)

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