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 only on the condition of anonymity.
The organization's rapid expansion, ties between its leaders and al-Qaeda, 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 White House 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. The new administration is still defining its rationale for undertaking sensitive operations in countries where the United States is not at war.
Some in the Defense Department have been frustrated by what they see as a failure to act. Many other 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 larger political turmoil in Somalia.
The most recent discussion of the issue took place early this week, just before the unrelated seizure of a U.S. commercial ship in the Indian Ocean by Somali pirates who are holding the American captain of the vessel hostage for ransom.
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-Qaeda. 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."
Some officials have said that those trained at the camps could leave Somalia, making their way through countries such as Yemen, where al-Qaeda has a stronger presence. But officials said there has been little movement outside Somalia.
Al-Shabab was formed from the remnants of an Islamist government overthrown in 2006 by a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion. Many of its recruits joined to fight the Ethiopians, who have now largely withdrawn, and officials said U.S. intelligence believes most al-Shabab fighters have been drawn to the organization for nationalistic reasons rather than an interest in global terrorism.
The group has become the strongest force inside Somalia, holding a large swath of territory in the south and contesting the current government's hold on power.
Mudd compared al-Shabab to other nationalistic movements in places such as Chechnya and Bosnia that have drawn fighters from abroad. Foreign recruits raise the profile of the local militant groups and make it appear as though they are part of a broader struggle, Mudd said. "They're accepting non-Somali fighters. . . . I think it adds to their credibility. It's a public relations bonanza for them."
Some of the widespread anti-Ethiopia feeling in Somalia redounded on the United States. "Certainly the Ethiopians weren't very popular in Somalia, and the perception that anybody was helping them wasn't popular there," Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence, said at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last month.
The Bush administration asserted that some of al-Shabab's original leaders were responsible for the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and maintained ties to al-Qaeda. Last year, it added the group to its list of terrorist organizations. "There are indications that al-Qaeda has provided support for training activity" in the camps, said a U.S. counterterrorism official.
American officials do not discount the threat of an attack on the United States or Europe. "To the extent that the al-Shabab leadership talks to the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan," the counterterrorism official said, "if that occurs with increasing frequency, then our concerns will grow even stronger."
For the moment, however, U.S. officials are more concerned about attacks in Somalia and in the region. "We're talking about . . . U.S. and Western interests, as well as potential attacks against other countries in Africa."
Similar debates over how to deal with perceived threats in countries where the United States is not at war occurred during the Bush administration, which on several occasions canceled strikes because of insufficient evidence or concern about inflaming the local population and making a politically explosive situation worse. The newness of the Obama administration, one senior military official, has slowed the decision process even more.
They are "walking slowly," the official said, "and for the players with continuity, the frustration continues to grow."
But many on the national security team insist that it is their caution and willingness to consider all aspects of the situation that differentiate them from the overly aggressive posture of the Bush administration that they say exacerbated the terrorist threat.