House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Peter King. (May 25,...

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Peter King. (May 25, 2011) Credit: AP

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Peter King said Wednesday that while the core group of al-Qaida may be collapsing, "franchises" like al-Shabab continue to recruit Somali-American youth with the intent to foment terror against the United States.

King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, made the comments at a hearing about al-Shabab, a Somali-based group that King (R-Seaford) said has ties to al-Qaida.

"That's al-Qaida central," King said, acknowledging U.S. officials believe al-Qaida is on the verge of collapse. "They have decentralized now to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Shabab. Obviously it's important, but we've felt for some time that the real threat had shifted away from central al-Qaida to the franchises."

A study released by King's Homeland Security Committee found that at least 40 Americans have been recruited to al-Shabab. The committee's report said at least 15 Americans have been killed while taking part in the terrorist group's actions, more than had been previously believed.

Under questioning by King, William Folk, former U.S. attorney for Minnesota, which contains a large Somali population, said that al-Shabab has the same message "as was set out by al-Qaida. Al-Shabab adopted the same training model."

But Democrats on the panel suggested that King's hearings were undermining efforts by other law enforcement officials to integrate Somalis into American communities, in an effort to head off radicalization.

The hearing was the third in a series King has held on what he says is the radicalization of the Muslim-American community.

King said he plans a fourth hearing for September. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim-American in Congress, who testified through tears at the first hearing, asked to speak at Wednesday's hearing, but was denied.

In a statement, he said the hearing risks "stereotyping the broader Somali community," which in turn risks "losing the trust of our strongest allies in the fight against violent extremism" -- ordinary Somali families.

The ranking Democratic member of the committee, Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, said while recruiting disaffected young men into gangs or al-Shabab is a problem, "al-Shabab does not appear to present any danger to this homeland."

Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) was perhaps the harshest critic of those on the panel, saying King's hearing "reminds me of a visit to the zoo when I saw the one-trick pony" and suggested that gang activity and other youth problems were equally important.

King retorted that there is "no equivalency" in the other problems.