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.
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.
Special Agent Todd Defide, based in Portland, said he meets informally with leaders in the Somali community two or three times a year.
Sue Durkin, community affairs specialist in the Boston field office, said in a prepared statement that the FBI develops relationships with members of the community to maintain open lines of communication.
“We have done that with Somali communities all across the nation including Portland,” Durkin said.
“During the meetings in Maine, issues we have discussed include the influence of gangs, drugs, and civil rights concerns. Within that context, we’ve spoken about the FBI’s efforts to thwart terrorism by asking all members of the public to be aware of signs of terrorism,” she said.
Mohamud Barre, who has participated in FBI outreach efforts while serving as executive director of the Somali Culture and Development Association, said he has not been contacted by the FBI since the attack.
In a brief interview Tuesday, Maine’s Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, “I have been in touch with the National Counterterrorism Center and they are unable to confirm the presence of Americans” in the attack in Kenya.
Sen. Angus King said intelligence staffers in his office have had discussions with the National Counterterrorism Center, a multi-agency center that was established after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to improve communication and cooperation among intelligence programs.
“As of this morning, they haven’t heard anything new,” said King.
One of the more vocal members of Congress on the al-Shabab issue is Rep. Peter King of New York, a Republican who is chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.
King was chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee in 2011 when it held hearings on al-Shabab recruitment in the U.S. — focused almost entirely on Minneapolis — and released an investigation estimating that at least 40 Americans had joined the group.
On Sunday, King told a New York radio station that “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 did not say that al-Shabab was recruiting in Portland, according to an article on CBS New York’s website.
A spokesman for King did not return repeated phone calls and emails from the Portland Press Herald on Tuesday and Monday.
Osman Hersi, a businessman who participated in Tuesday’s meeting in Portland, said the children of Somali immigrants are American.
“They think like Maine. … They are texting, playing basketball … they go to dances,” Hersi said.
With about 6,000 immigrants, the Somali community may seem large in a rural state like Maine, but it is small enough that members know what is happening in their community, and would know if someone was trying to recruit young people to fight in Africa, leaders said.
Somalis have just three mosques in the state, two in Portland and one in Lewiston, so they are a close-knit group, said Ahmed, the Deering High science teacher.
“Even we know who is having babies,” he said.
Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller contributed to this report.
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: