WASHINGTON — Some American former convicts who converted to Islam in prison have moved to Yemen and a few may have joined extremist groups there, according to a new Senate report.
The report, from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says that as many as 36 American Muslims who were prisoners have moved to Yemen in recent months, ostensibly to study Arabic, and that several of them have “dropped off the radar” and may have connected to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The report warns that Americans recruited in Yemen or Somalia may pose a particular threat, since they can operate freely inside the United States.
American intelligence and counterterrorism officials, though, said they thought the report’s claim about former prisoners was exaggerated. A law enforcement official confirmed that some of them had traveled to Yemen — perhaps one or two dozen over the past several years — intending to study Arabic or Islam. The official said the former convicts did not appear to be part of any organized recruitment effort, however, and few are known to have connections with extremists.
Yemen has come under increased scrutiny from American counterterrorism agencies since November, after it emerged that Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., had exchanged e-mail messages with Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Yemeni-American cleric in hiding in Yemen. The focus intensified after the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25 by a Nigerian man who allegedly was trained and supplied with explosives in Yemen.
The Senate report, written by the committee’s Democratic staff, said the government was “on heightened alert because of the potential threat from extremists carrying American passports and the related challenges involved in detecting and stopping homegrown operatives.”
With the United States putting Al Qaeda under intense pressure in Pakistan, some fighters have moved to join militant groups in Yemen and Somalia, as well as in North Africa and Southeast Asia, the report said. “These groups may have only an informal connection with Al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan, but they often share common goals,” Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the committee’s Democratic chairman, wrote in a letter accompanying the report.
The report notes that members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, appeared at an antigovernment rally in southern Yemen last month. In video later shown on Al Jazeera television, a militant told the crowd that the group’s war was with the United States, not the Yemeni Army.
In addition to the American former prisoners in Yemen, the report said there were about 10 other Americans not of Yemeni ancestry who have also moved there, married Yemeni women and adopted a radical form of Islam. None in that group, however, appear to have sought terrorist training, the report said.
In nearby Somalia, the Senate report recounted, news reports told of Somali-Americans traveling to join a militant group, the Shabab. It also described Americans caught entering Somalia from Djibouti.
An immigration official in Djibouti said that he had recently turned away two Somali-Americans trying to cross into Somalia, because he thought they might be trying to link up with the Shabab. Two others were arrested and prosecuted in Djibouti for entering illegally.
The possibility that American prisons could become an incubator for radical Islam has long been raised by experts on terrorism, and a few Muslim prison chaplains in United States prisons have been accused of having extremist views. To date, only a handful of alleged terrorist plots, none of them successful, have involved American Muslims who are former prisoners.
Three American Muslims were convicted for a 2005 plot to attack Jewish institutions and military bases around Los Angeles that was said to have been concocted inside New Folsom Prison, near Sacramento. Michael Finton, who converted to Islam while imprisoned in Illinois from 1999 to 2005, was charged last year with trying to blow up the federal courthouse in Springfield, Ill.
And four former New York state prisoners, at least two of whom converted to Islam in prison, were accused last year of plotting to attack synagogues in the Bronx and shoot down military planes.
A. J. Sabree, a corrections official in Georgia and a Muslim, who worked for years as a prison chaplain, said he had never heard of Muslim former prisoners moving to Yemen. Erik Kriss, a spokesman for the New York State prison system, which employs about 40 imams to counsel inmates, said officials there were not aware of the phenomenon.
Mr. Kriss cautioned against equating conversion in prison to Islam, which is relatively common, to radicalization.
“We do not have any evidence of anything resembling widespread terrorist-inspired radicalization or recruiting,” he said. “But we recognize the potential and therefore remain vigilant in guarding against it.”
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.