* Somali-Americans vanishing from U.S. homes raise concern
* FBI investigating, senator says arrests possible
* Recruits seen as unlikely to be domestic terrorists
By Randall Mikkelsen
WASHINGTON, March 11 (Reuters) - The FBI is investigating how young Somali-Americans were drawn to fight with an al Qaeda-linked group in Somalia, but there is no sign they are being trained as domestic U.S. terrorists, authorities told Congress on Wednesday.
"Tens" of Somali-Americans, primarily from Minneapolis, have returned to Somalia to fight with the militant Islamist al Shabaab group that controls much of the country, officials of the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center testified before the Senate Homeland Security committee.
Reports of the young men vanishing from home in recent years and turning up in Somalia have fanned concerns that al Qaeda, which has suspected leadership ties to Al Shabaab, could be training them to return to the United States under their U.S. passports and conduct attacks.
But the U.S. officials said the recruits, including a 27-year-old who blew himself up in October, were destined for fighting in Somalia mainly against Ethiopian forces that withdrew in January after a two-year occupation.
"Some get there and become cannon fodder," FBI national security official Philip Mudd said. "These folks aren’t going over there to become part of terrorist cells. A lot of them are being put on the front line and some of them, I think, have been killed on the front line, from the United States."
Said Andrew Liepman, deputy director for intelligence at the counterterrorism center, "They are going to Somalia to fight for their homeland, not to join al Qaeda’s jihad against the United States, so far."
He said al Qaeda did not have strong organizational links to al Shabaab, despite the leadership ties.
The officials said they could not rule out that some Somali-American fighters could eventually return to attack, especially if they go on to Pakistan for advanced training.
Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman said he understood there may be arrests of suspected recruiters as part of a federal probe.
"There are ongoing investigations," Mudd said. "It’s a significant concern to us." He declined further comment.
A Somali U.N. envoy, Idd Mohamed, told Reuters after the hearing that he understood the FBI probe to be focused on Minneapolis, home to the largest Somali-American community.
Many Somalis fled their homeland after factional fighting began in 1991; an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 live in the United States. Other Somali-American population centers include Seattle, San Diego, Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio.
Osman Ahmed, whose nephew, Burhan Hassan vanished last November, said many who went to Somalia had left there as infants. He said they were bright students, close to the local mosque, and "the hope of the Somali American community."
But he said they faced challenges including single-parent homes and cultural barriers. They were susceptible to "indoctrination," he said, and formed a view of Somali shaped by their teachers at a local mosque.
"Our children had no clue they were being recruited to join al Shabaab," Ahmed said. "We also heard that when kids arrive, they are immediately shocked at what ‘utopia’ is and all their documents and belongings are confiscated. They are whisked to hidden military camps for training. They are also told if they flee and return home that they will end up in Guantanamo."
Somalia’s new unity government was in contact with representatives from the United States and European countries also thought to have citizens with al Shabaab, Mohamed said. "Our government is doing its best to make sure that these children are accounted for," he said.
(Editing by Alan Elsner)