Although al-Qaeda itself is under more pressure than at any time since 2001, the threat from affiliated groups such as Shabab is growing, said Leiter and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III. In particular, such groups are providing al-Qaeda a pipeline of American and European fighters whose passports would make it easier for them to travel undetected and potentially attack Western targets, current and former U.S. officials said. "The role of returning foreign fighters to the United States changes the nature of the threat to the homeland," Mueller said in written testimony last week to a Senate hearing into the evolving terrorist threat inside the United States. Leiter's statement singled out Shabab and Lashkar-i-Taiba, a Pakistan-based militant group accused in the commando-style attack on Mumbai in November that killed more than 170 people. The latter "could pose a direct threat" inside the United States, particularly in collusion with al-Qaeda, although its focus has been on India and Afghanistan, Leiter said in written testimony. Although Shabab has not launched attacks outside Somalia, al-Qaeda operatives might "commission" a U.S. strike, American officials said. They note that people trained in Somalia have been traced to several international plots, including one that Australia's police in August said was aimed at an army base there. In the most striking recent revelation, U.S. officials confirmed that they think a key trainer of Somali American youths was Saleh Ali Nabhan, 30, a wanted Shabab leader and liaison to al-Qaeda in Pakistan who was killed in a U.S. commando-style helicopter raid Sept. 14. Nabhan was sought by the FBI in the bombing of an Israeli hotel in Kenya and the attempted downing of an Israeli airliner in 2002, as well as his role in the 1998 al-Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Shabab spokesmen said the A.U. bombing last month was in retaliation for Nabhan's killing. Shabab released a video Sept. 20 pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and featuring a new, young American spokesman, according to private firms that monitor Islamist Web sites. The 49-minute video, titled, "At Your Service, O Usama," contained footage of a Somali training camp and showcased Omar Hammami, 25, a former University of South Alabama student.
"Any connection you have between American recruits and al-Qaeda trainers -- real senior, accomplished people like Nabhan -- that raises a lot of concerns," a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said last week. "It's hard to tell where Shabab ends and al-Qaeda in East Africa begins. That's how closely the two are linked," another U.S. counterterrorism official said, adding that both "are intent on stepping up their terrorist activity in East Africa. . . . It's critical that we and our allies keep a close eye on them."
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