A Somali terrorist group claiming responsibility for Saturday’s deadly attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, has reported that one of the attackers is from Maine.
The report came from the now-suspended Twitter feed of al-Shabab that listed a dozen individuals the group claims were involved in the Westgate Mall attack, which killed at least 68 people.
The list, which identifies six participants as U.S. citizens, was quickly copied and repeated on blogs, Facebook and other online media outlets. The Portland Press Herald is not identifying the person named as being from Maine – or the others mentioned by al-Shabab – because it could not independently confirm their identities.
Besides Maine, the al-Shabab tweets said the U.S.-based attackers were from Illinois, Kansas City, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Tucson.
A spokesman for the FBI in Boston, Greg Comcowich, warned Sunday evening that it was too early to tell whether the Twitter feed or the names and places of origin listed on it were legitimate.
“I’ve gone through this before,” he said. “People often take credit for things that aren’t true.”
Comcowich said the FBI could not yet confirm or deny whether it had knowledge of anyone from Maine being involved in the terrorist attack.
The national FBI office in Washington did not immediately respond to requests for comment Sunday night on the reported list or whether the agency believed al-Shabaab has been recruiting in the U.S.
The State Department said it was monitoring the situation but declined other comment.
“We have seen the reports, are not in a position to confirm, and are seeking further details,” a State Department official told the Press Herald late Sunday.
U.S. Sen. Angus King’s office released a statement that alludes to the list by referencing news reports of the terrorist group attempting to recruit in Maine and the four other states.
“Any such activity in Maine is of especial concern to me and I will be working with Homeland Security, the FBI and my colleagues on the Senate Intelligence Committee to gather the facts of this situation and help guide the appropriate response,” King, an independent, said in a statement. “In pursuing this matter, justice should be swift and sure for those involved in this crime, including anyone with connections to Maine.
“At the same time, however, we must avoid assigning blame to members of our refugee community generally, the vast majority of whom came here specifically to avoid such violence and want nothing more than the chance to live peaceful and productive lives, as generations of refugees to our country have done before them,” King said.
Both King and Maine’s other U.S. senator – Republican Susan Collins – serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee, whose members are privy to classified information from intelligence and defense agencies. Collins also formerly chaired the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
King spokeswoman Crystal Canney confirmed Sunday evening that the senator has seen the reports of an alleged Maine connection.
“We are aware of the list,” Canney said. King’s office is “talking to people” about the situation, Canney said, but she would not provide additional details.
Collins has requested a briefing from the National Counterterrorism Center, which is a joint operation of intelligence agencies that was established after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Collins’ spokesman, Kevin Kelley, did not respond to additional questions on the alleged list or whether she was aware of terrorist groups actively recruiting in Maine.
“When I was the senior Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, we held hearings on recruiting efforts here in the United States by al Shabaab and other terrorist groups,” Collins said in a statement. “The advantage for Islamist extremists is that American citizens can travel more easily and are less likely to be listed on terrorist watch lists.”
Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who represents Maine’s 1st District, was monitoring the situation.
“We are definitely aware of these reports,” Pingree spokesman Willy Ritch said. “We have reached out to the White House and the FBI to see if there was any new information that we can get. We don’t have any (information) to confirm or contradict it.”
Saturday’s deadly attack rekindled allegations that al-Shabab may be recruiting Somali immigrants in the Portland area for terrorist activities abroad.
However, there never before has been a reported incident of Somali immigrants in the area being recruited successfully by al-Shabab.
The allegation that Portland is a terrorist recruitment center for al-Shabab dates back to at least March 2009, when an FBI report cited Portland as one of several U.S. cities where members of Somali immigrant populations might be vulnerable to recruitment efforts by the al-Qaida-linked group. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held hearings that same month on al-Shabab’s recruitment efforts in the U.S., but the testimony focused largely on Minneapolis.
As of 2012, there were about 6,000 immigrants from Somalia in Maine, including roughly 1,000 members of the Bantu ethnic minority group.
The allegation that al-Shabab has recruited Mainers into terrorism has been repeated several times since 2009 in blog posts and online news articles.
On Sunday morning’s “Today” show, NBC terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann said al-Shabab recruits terrorists from Portland and other U.S. cities, including Minneapolis, San Diego and Seattle.
“These are not places you think of as being headquarters for terrorist groups,” Kohlmann said on the program. “Nonetheless, Shabab has had quite a bit of success in terms of finding local people in these different cities … and bringing them to Somalia.”
Kohlmann wasn’t the only person to mention Portland on Sunday in relation to the events in Kenya.
U.S. Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who is chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, told the New York City news radio station WCBS 880 that officials are aware of 40 to 50 Somali-Americans who have gone back to Somalia to train.
King did not say al-Shabaab was actively recruiting in Portland, but he suggested that law enforcement should be examining travel and communications between the U.S. and Somalia.
“It’s important right now for the FBI to go to communities such as Minneapolis and St. Paul, to Portland, Maine – this is where the Somali-American community is based,” King said, according to an article posted on the CBS New York website.
But local leaders with strong ties to the Somali community said the allegations that Portland is a terrorist recruitment center have no basis in fact.
Somali elder and educator Ahmed Hassan said he has lived in Portland for 17 years and is not aware of a single incident in which a Somali from Maine has been recruited into al-Shabab.
Hassan also said the FBI frequently comes to the Islamic Center of Portland to give talks to the community, and that the agents never have mentioned anything about successful terrorist recruitment efforts in Maine.
He said they almost certainly would have mentioned such a thing if it had happened.
“Portland is a safe and nice place,” Hassan said. “Somalis who come here think of it as a safe haven.”
Mohamud Barre, executive director of the Somali Culture and Development Association in Portland, questioned why any Somali in Maine would want to return to Somalia, where a bloody civil war has ravaged the country for more than two decades.
Barre said members of the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security maintain open lines of dialog with members of Portland’s Somali community to ensure there are no efforts underway to radicalize or recruit people into terrorist groups.
“As a community leader, I’ve never seen any suspicious activity related to al-Shabab,” he said.
J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:
Kevin Miller, the Press Herald’s Washington bureau chief, can be contacted at (207) 317-6256 or at: