By Pat Loeb

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The Somali Islamists taking credit for the Kenyan mall attack (see related story), playing to American fears that extremists with American passports could bring a terror campaign here, are also claiming to have several American-born fighters in their ranks.

But a local expert on terrorism says it’s a remote possibility.

Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, says that it’s true that the extremist group El Shabbab succeeded in recruiting Westerners in its fight to return to power in Somalia, but he also says the group has been so weakened and fraught with internal disputes and defections that it’s hard to know what went into the mall attack.

From 2006 to 2011, El Shabbab was essentially the ruling force in Somalia, notes Watts, a former US Army counterterrorism officer.  He says the morphing of that group into a terrorist organization shows that it no longer has enough force to fight a conventional battle against the UN-backed Kenyan forces that chased it from power.

But its goal, he says, is probably to show that it is resurgent.

“By conducting a very big attack, you can essentially do some good advertising and reset the agenda that Shabbab hasn’t gone away, that it is still of strength,” Watts tells KYW Newsradio.

But he says the mall attack alone is not sufficient to judge Shabbab’s strength.  He says that will take time to assess:

“If this is a one-shot attack, this could be their dying breath, their last chance with the resources they have. If we see them do another attack or sustain this campaign, then we’ll know that they’re truly resilient.”

Hear the full interview with Clint Watts in this CBS Philly podcast (runs 9:22)…

As for American El Shabbab supporters migrating back to the United States, Watts says, US counterterrorism efforts are the strongest they’ve ever been. Although, he adds, “It only takes one to be successful, so you have to bat a thousand if you’re the US counterterrorism community.  So it’s a tough mission.”

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