WASHINGTON — Senior Obama administration officials are debating how to address a potential terrorist threat to U.S. interests from a Somali extremist group, with some in the military advocating strikes against its training camps. But many officials maintain that uncertainty about the intentions of the al-Shabab organization dictates a more patient, nonmilitary approach.
Al-Shabab, whose fighters have battled Ethiopian occupiers and the tenuous Somali government, poses a dilemma for the administration, according to several senior national security officials who outlined the debate to the Washington Post only on condition of anonymity because of its sensitivity.
The organization's rapid expansion, ties between its leaders and al-Qaida, and the presence of Americans and Europeans in its camps have raised the question of whether a preemptive strike is warranted. Yet the group's objectives have thus far been domestic, and officials say that U.S. intelligence has no evidence it is planning attacks outside Somalia.
An attack against al-Shabab camps in southern Somalia would mark the administration's first military strike outside the Iraq and Afghanistan-Pakistan war zones. The discussions highlight the challenges facing the Obama team as it attempts to distance itself from the Bush administration, which conducted at least five military strikes in Somalia.
Many national security officials say an ill-considered strike would have negative diplomatic and political consequences far beyond the Horn of Africa. Other options under consideration are increased financial pressure and diplomatic activity, including stepped-up efforts to resolve the political turmoil in Somalia.
The most recent discussion of the issue took place last week, just before the unrelated seizure of a U.S. commercial ship in the Indian Ocean by Somali pirates.
The administration has not shied away from missile attacks, launched from unmanned aircraft, in Pakistan, targeting what U.S. intelligence says are top members of al-Qaida. Evidence against al-Shabab in Somalia is far murkier and the argument in favor of a strike is based on the potential threat the group poses to American interests.
"There is increasing concern about what terrorists operating in Somalia might do," a U.S. counterterrorism official said. According to other senior officials, the camps have graduated hundreds of fighters.
The FBI and intelligence officials have said that at least 20 young Somali American men have left this country for Somalia in recent years to train and fight with al-Shabab against the Somali government and occupying Ethiopian military forces. In February, a naturalized American — 27-year-old Shirwa Ahmed of Minneapolis — killed himself and many others in a suicide bombing in Somalia.
The U.S., Canadian and European fighters at the al-Shabab training camps are, for now, being used primarily as cannon fodder in Somalia's chaotic internal wars, Philip Mudd, the No. 2 official at the FBI's National Security Branch, told Congress last month.
"We do not have a credible body of reporting right now to lead us to believe that these American recruits are being trained and instructed to come back to the United States for terrorist acts," he said. "Yet, obviously, we remain concerned about that and watchful for it."