No one knows why more than a dozen young Somali- Americans returned to the conflict their parents fled. Neela Banerjee reports from Minneapolis on the struggle to come to terms with their departure.
On a blustery April afternoon, Abdirazak Bihi settled into a chair in an empty classroom at a Minneapolis community centre to videotape an interview with a local Associated Press reporter. The subject was the disappearance of more than a dozen young Somali-American men, who are thought to be fighting in Somalia for an Islamic terrorist group. His 17-year-old nephew Burhan Hassan is among the missing, and Bihi has emerged as a spokesman for the family, who have avoided the media.
The large Somali community in Minneapolis has been subject to the relentless scrutiny of reporters and law enforcement investigators since November 2008, when it emerged that one of the young men had killed himself in a suicide attack in northern Somalia. To date no one knows precisely who or what enticed the young men to abandon their lives in Minnesota. Bihi speaks English more fluently than many Somali immigrants; his manner is joking and garrulous. His three-year-old daughter sits nearby, angling for his attention, but he is intently focused. He is furious about his nephew’s disappearance.
The reporter, a middle-aged white man, finished setting up his camera, and leaning over the viewfinder, asked, “Who at the Islamic centre was allegedly recruiting these young men?”
Blinking rapidly behind his glasses and talking in quotable jabs, Bihi quickly asserted that his family and others suspected the young men had been radicalised at a local mosque. Their boys had spent nearly all their time at home, school or the mosque, he said. Since the men could not have been radicalised at home or school, Bihi and others deduced, it had to be at the Abubakar as Saddique mosque, which many had attended, including the suicide bomber.
The reporter was eager to flesh this out. What are they being promised as part of the recruiting?, he asked. “I don’t know, but the process of brainwashing kids is highly sophisticated and they have been attending this institution for a decade,” Bihi said.
Bihi said no one knows the true number of young men missing from Minneapolis because the mosque has used “harsh propaganda and threats”, like the idea that people will end up at Guantanamo for talking to the FBI, to keep families away from the authorities. He said the mosque has harassed him and others who have spoken up. “They say one thing in one language and another thing in another language.”
The reporter’s final question circled back to the start, perhaps to the essence of all the media curiosity: “To wrap it up, who do you think is responsible for this at the mosque?”
As far back as early 2007, American intelligence received reports that foreigners, including some Americans, had joined Islamist groups fighting the Somali government and the Ethiopian troops who had intervened on its behalf. But that concern escalated into alarm after a string of co-ordinated suicide bombings tore through the northern Somali cities of Hargeisa and Bosasso on October 29, 2008, killing at least 30 people and wounding dozens more.
The Somali Islamist militia al Shabaab, whose senior leaders have ties to al Qa’eda, is suspected of carrying out the attacks. But of greater concern to American authorities was the identity of one of the bombers: Shirwa Ahmed, a 26-year-old Minneapolis resident. In February, the FBI director Robert Mueller confirmed that Ahmed was “the first US citizen to carry out a terrorist suicide bombing”.
Around the same time, the FBI disclosed that “tens” of young Somali-American men from Minneapolis and other cities had gone missing. Nearly all had come to the US as children. The families of about a half-dozen Minneapolis men told the agency and the media they suspected the men had been recruited at home and were now fighting for al Shabaab.
To those Americans convinced of the looming threat of “homegrown” Islamic terrorism, Ahmed’s death was confirmation that young American Muslims could be radicalised to carry out extreme violence. Though Ahmed died in Somalia, they fear that the unremarkable American college kid who slips away to fight for al Shabaab in Somalia could return home and blow himself up in the Mall of the Americas.
The Senate Homeland Security Committee, led by Joseph Lieberman, held hearings in March about the disappearances. The FBI has launched an investigation, while a federal grand jury in Minneapolis has subpoenaed Somali immigrants for questioning. So far, the enquiries haven’t explained why ambitious young men from close-knit families would leave without a word to anyone to fight in the shattered country their parents fled. There is no publicly available list of the missing young men. Some families whose sons are gone insist they are merely visiting Somalia. Others have sequestered themselves. No indictments have been issued yet.
As a result, conjecture has swarmed the void, and Somali anger at the situation has turned inward. The accusations and media scrutiny have stirred worries among Somalis about a backlash that, to many American Muslims, has seemed on the verge of erupting since the attacks of September 11. “It’s not just about the mosque. This is about the whole community,” said Mohammed, 25, who attended the same mosque as several of the missing young men. Mohammed, who came to the US from Somalia as a child, has been questioned by the FBI with regard to the case. “People talk about it everywhere you go, and everyone knows someone or knows of someone who has been questioned. There is a lot of fear in the community.
“We’re simple people who are living our lives, going to school, helping our families, and now all this can be ruined. I’m worried that the community will be seen as an incubator for terrorism. If nothing comes of this, the FBI will keep it quiet and the Somali community will be the ones to get a bad name.”
The precise number of Somalis in the Minneapolis area is unknown, but many estimates range between 40,000 and 60,000, making it the largest Somali community in the United States. Most of the Somalis in Minnesota came to America as refugees in the mid-1990s, in the years after the government of the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre collapsed and the country fell into ceaseless conflict.
Somali immigrants were drawn to Minnesota because jobs, albeit low-level ones, were plentiful and housing cheap and often subsidised. Somali-Americans teach and study at local universities, and there are Somali doctors, lawyers and store-owners. But much of the population still lives on the economic and cultural fringes of American society.
Many Somali households around Minneapolis are headed by women, either because of divorce or husbands lost to war. Many of the women lack basic education even in Somali, given the breakdown of schooling during two decades of war. Men and women alike often have insufficient English skills to move into better-paying jobs, which means lots of families live in poverty.
In recent years, the biggest threat for young Somali-American men has not been religious radicalisation but the proliferation of local gangs with names like Murda Squad and Somali Mafia, which have flourished in south Minneapolis, where many Somali immigrants settled. Hundreds of Somalis live in the Cedar-Riverside Plaza, a cluster of six towers off a street with African coffeehouses and grocery stores. At the foot of the plaza is the Brian Coyle community centre, where a large sign on the front door reminds young people that guns are banned on the premises. Last year, however, Ahmednur Ali, a college student working at the centre, was shot and killed as he left the building, by a 16-year-old Somali teen – because Ali told the boy he couldn’t play basketball in the centre’s gym.
In public and in private, Minneapolis Somalis accuse each other of endangering their youth and apportion blame widely. Somalis contend that mosques have radicalised the young men, that community centres don’t do enough to keep children away from gangs, that parents are so taken with the faraway idea that they might one day return to Somalia that they don’t help their children adapt to life here and that law enforcement has done little to get to know the community.
The refugees brought with them the political and clan divisions that have fed the last 20 years of civil war in Somalia, and these rifts have contributed to the hostility and accusations within the community over the disappearances of the young men. “The divisions that existed in Somalia exist here, and they are focused on the politics back home,” said Ubah Shirwa, who publishes a quarterly Somali magazine in Minneapolis called Haboon.
Members of al Shabaab, the militia the missing men are believed to have joined, stand guard over a mine-sweeping operation in a part of Mogadishu vacated by Ethiopian troops. Abdurrahman Warsameh / Corbis
The young men who left abruptly for Somalia had managed to avoid the lure of gangs and violence in Minneapolis. Some were in college, or working several jobs. Amid the finger-pointing within the Somali community, all sides agree that these men had bright futures and weren’t aimless, alienated youth easily picked off by recruiters for radical causes.
“These kids were the leaders of their families,” Abdirazak Bihi said. “Their families were depending on them to find resources, help out, go to college.”
On November 4, just days after Shirwa Ahmed blew himself up, Burhan Hassan’s mother got a call from her son’s teacher because he had missed school that day. Burhan was the youngest in his family, a quiet, serious teenager, wispy as a 13-year-old. He did well in school and hoped to go to Harvard. He had already memorised the Quran, acquaintances at his mosque said. Burhan was preternaturally mature. He wasn’t the kind of kid to skip school.
The family thought that Burhan had gone to the mosque to watch the returns of that day’s presidential election. Abubakar as Saddique is the largest mosque in Minneapolis, and it has a predominantly Somali congregation. Anywhere from 500 to 1,000 people attend Friday prayer at the long cinderblock building – formerly home to a roofing company. The mosque doesn’t have after-school programmes, but about 15 high school students, including Burhan, came in the afternoon to study the Quran and do their homework in its quiet rooms, away from the distractions of the community centres. According to Bihi, Burhan had spent much of his time in the mosque since grade school.
At 9:30 on the evening of the election, Omar Hurre, Abubakar’s director, was huddled around a computer at the mosque with friends, watching election returns, when he heard a knock at the door. It was Burhan’s older brother, cellphone to his ear, asking Hurre if he had seen the boy.
“That’s when I realised I hadn’t seen him for the last two weeks, and this was someone I had seen every day, and my friends said the same thing,” Hurre told me. “The young man handed me the phone and said: ‘Can you talk to this lady?’”
It was Burhan’s mother. “She was calm, and I gave her two possible whereabouts,” Hurre said. “Maybe he was watching election results someplace, but I took that back because Burhan had never talked about politics. Then I said he was probably studying somewhere.”
The next day, the father of Jamal Bana, another young man who spent a great deal of time at the mosque, came to see Hurre, searching for his son. He too seemed unworried, Hurre said. In the next few days, Hurre said, word reached the mosque that several other young men were missing.
“We called a board meeting and we called Burhan’s mother and asked her to come to us, so we could co-ordinate a search,” Hurre said. “Then she was very upset and she said: ‘Do you have my kid?’”
Burhan’s family searched for him at other mosques, hospitals and the airport, said Osman Ahmed, a relative. In his room, they discovered that his passport, luggage, laptop and cellphone were gone. Ahmed said that the family found an itinerary for a flight to Kenya that cost $2000. Burhan didn’t have that kind of money, Ahmed said, and when the family contacted the travel agency they were told that an adult bought the ticket for Burhan.
Abdirashid Ali, a 20-year-old student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), has known Jamal Bana since they were in middle school together a decade ago. He was the oldest in his family and wanted to be an engineer, Ali said. “He was outgoing, religious but still a guy anyone could relate to.”
The two men lost touch in high school but renewed their friendship when both enrolled at MCTC. Jamal had a reputation for partying as a high schooler, Ali said, but then he became more devout, which seemed to turn his life around. Afterwards, Ali said, Jamal would gently chide him and his friends “when we were partying a bit too much”. “I never minded it because here was a kid I’d helped with homework, and now it was his turn to lecture me.”
About two months before he left, Jamal seemed to change, Ali recalled, growing quieter, more conservative and distant. Ali heard from a friend in December that Jamal had disappeared, and he went to visit Jamal’s family. His mother, Ali said, is “absolutely devastated”.
The family told Ali that Jamal had shaved his beard a day or two before he went missing. He didn’t come home on November 4, which had never happened before, and he didn’t call. The family said Jamal’s laptop and passport were gone. His young brother said he’d had an odd conversation with Jamal, who told him that if he died, the little boy had to promise to be good.
Shirwa Ahmed had followed a similar arc. He had gone from wearing the latest hip-hop clothes and flirting with girls at the mall to becoming increasingly religious as he got older, according to reports in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. In a conversation with a friend at the mosque, he said he believed suicide bombing was contrary to Islam. When he left Minneapolis in late 2007, he told his family he was going on Hajj, and later, said that he planned to stay in the Middle East to study Islam.
Osman Ahmed said that Burhan Hassan, Jamal Bana, Mohammed Hassan, Abdisalam Ali and Mustafa Ali Salat left for Somalia on November 4. The FBI confirmed that it had been contacted by several of the missing men’s families, but it would not divulge the details of any departures.
The young men have called occasionally to say they are well and in Mogadishu, Ahmed said. But their families have been unable to pry more information from them. “Nothing could appeal to them to go to Somalia because Somalia is a hell,” said Bihi, Burhan’s uncle. “They didn’t leave the dream of Harvard to go to the fifth century.”
Last Friday, one of the missing young men called Burhan’s family from Mogadishu to tell them that he had been killed in Somalia. Bihi told local press that the family had been trying to get Burhan to go to the US Embassy in Nairobi. “We believe he was killed because he would have been a key person in the investigation into the recruitment here in Minneapolis,” Bihi told the Associated Press. He said his nephew had been shot in the head and his body found in an open area of Mogadishu. The FBI in Minneapolis said it was aware of the news but could not confirm Burhan’s death.
For all the investigation and speculation, no one has put forth a plausible, coherent theory of what drew these young men to fighting in Somalia – or how they made their way there. Lots of Minneapolis Somalis don’t think their young men have gone missing at all or are even in Somalia, let alone fighting for al Shabaab. But if they had gone to study or visit family, said Abdulahi Farah, the youth director at Abubakar as Saddique mosque, why didn’t they tell anyone? Why did they leave in the middle of the night?
Questioning by the FBI and grand jury about the disappearances is widespread and intense, Minneapolis Somalis said. But EK Wilson, a spokesman for the FBI in Minneapolis, said that it had not been easy to determine precisely who or what encouraged the young men to leave. “We get varying levels of co-operation within the same families,” he said. “Some relatives are sad, some angry. There’s a reluctance among some to believe it even happened. Some want us to get to the bottom of it and some don’t want us to have anything to do with it. It comes from a mistrust of us, a fear for their kid overseas, a fear for family here, that they will be ostracised.”
Somali students at the University of Minnesota have complained to the Council of American-Islamic Relations about FBI agents stopping them on campus or taking them out of class, often in the company of campus security, for questioning. Mohammed, the young man from Abubakar mosque, said the FBI contacted him on his cellphone. He met the agents in a local coffee shop and told them he knew the missing men only in passing, and says in response they accused him of hiding something. He worried they would arrest him. (Wilson, the FBI spokesman, said no one is obligated to talk and that its personnel have conducted questioning in a professional manner.)
The Somalis themselves are looking for someone to blame, and many have focused their ire on the parents of the missing young men. Their compatriots talk of how parents are often stuck in the past and unable to help their kids navigate the present. The men talk endlessly about politics back in Somalia at the local Starbucks rather than being home with their children, Somalis said. Parents often see anything American as bad and threatening. They don’t know enough English to understand what their children are getting into. The children aren’t American enough when they are out in the world, and at home, they aren’t Somali enough. The kids who want to escape the gangs, the ones aiming for university, often hang out at the mosque, I was told.
Now the mosque itself is also a target. Many of the missing young men attended Abubakar, and spokesmen for the families have alleged that the young men were radicalised at the mosque. Others in the community, however, accuse the families of making sensational but baseless claims to explain their sons’ departures.
The mosque’s leaders deny the accusations, and say they cannot be held responsible for the actions of hundreds of worshippers. “The mosque isn’t accountable for what a person believes,” said the imam, Abdirahman Ahmed. “It is just one place: people go home, there is the internet, university, there are adults there. What people think, what they are doing, we have no control over.”
An intelligence official close to the investigations said the mosque had a reputation for radicalism, though in its back rooms rather than at Friday prayers. But many local Somalis rejected the notion that the mosque has a radical tenor. A former FBI agent and counterterrorism consultant also dismissed the idea that mosques are islands of radicalisation.
“It’s like any church in the US: if any pastor is preaching violence, someone will notice it and report it,” said Clint Watts, who worked on the case of seven American Muslims in Portland, Oregon who were convicted of aiding the Taliban. “I think the biggest recruiter for a foreign fighter is the former foreign fighter. Terrorists might meet at a religious centre but they remove themselves from it almost immediately to do ‘independent study’. That’s because whatever is being preached at the religious centre isn’t radical enough for them.”
The FBI has met with the mosque’s leaders in a community forum but has yet to interview them.In late November, Abubakar’s imam, Abdirahman Ahmed, and its youth director, Abdulahi Farah, discovered that they had been placed on a no-fly list by the US government when they were prevented from departing for Hajj.
“I felt like this was the kind of thing I’d heard from my parents about Somalia,” said Farah, 28. “Where’s the Constitution in all this? I felt like being a citizen made me immune to things like this. To this day, I don’t know why I was stopped or what crime I’ve committed.”
Donations fell at the mosque, and fewer young people came by. But things are back to normal now, Hurre said. Friday attendance has increased – perhaps, mosque leaders said, due to curiosity.
The disappearances of the young men have affected Somali-Americans far beyond Minneapolis. Somalis in other cities, like Columbus, Ohio, say they are bracing for the fallout from indictments that might result from the FBI and grand jury investigations.
Somalis in Minneapolis and elsewhere expressed a weary familiarity with the stigma of guilt by association. In November 2001, several money transfer agencies in Minnesota used by Somalia were shut down by the FBI, but no charges were ever brought. In 2004, a Somali immigrant in Ohio was indicted of plotting to bomb a local shopping mall. In 2006, Abubakar mosque was damaged in a case of suspected arson. No one was ever caught.
On December 15, Abia Ali, a volunteer youth worker at Abubakar and a local civil servant, arrived in New York after visiting family in Uganda. Two federal agents were waiting for her at the end of the jetway, and one shouted, “We got it!” when she appeared. She was marched past the other 400 passengers and interrogated for two hours. She hasn’t been questioned by the FBI or the federal grand jury, but member of the mosque who have talked to investigators told her that they were shown her photo. Strangers have told her that they had heard she had been arrested.
When I met her in Minneapolis, she laughed as she told me that her blood pressure has shot up. Then her face closed and she began to cry. She worried she wouldn’t be allowed to leave the country and relocate to Uganda with her husband and children. “I’m afraid, afraid of the unknown thing,” she said, her silver scarf falling off her shoulders. “You don’t know what it is that you’re facing.”
Ali was issued a grand jury subpoena this week. “I’m kind of nervous about what they’re asking me and what’s going on,” she said by phone from Minneapolis. “I’ve never been before a court. I have heard it is four hours and you will be asked the same questions, repeatedly, in different ways.”
It is nothing new in the United States for immigrants to involve themselves in conflicts in their home countries: Irish-Americans, for example, provided support to the Provisional IRA. An intelligence official close to the Shirwa Ahmed investigation said US intelligence agencies have been following the relationship between the Somali diaspora and al Shabaab for “a couple of years without a great deal of concern because the amounts of money were small, and we were more focused on Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
But last fall, when intelligence from East Africa indicated the presence of American fighters in Somalia, alarms began to ring. News of Ahmed’s role in the suicide attacks, according to the intelligence official, made “us wake up to the potential of what could happen”.
The FBI in Minneapolis would not discuss the investigation. No one, including the Somali government, would provide basic details about Shirwa Ahmed’s death. Somali intelligence officials say that Ahmed struck in Bosasso, at one of two Puntland state intelligence agency offices attacked that day.
Abdirazak Bihi, pictured outside the Cedar-Riverside Plaza, is mourning his 17-year-old nephew, Burhan Hassan, who was found dead in Mogadishu: “Nothing could appeal to them to go to Somalia because Somalia is a hell. They didn’t leave the dream of Harvard to go to the fifth century”. Allen Brisson-Smith for The National
The other young men who left may be studying in Somalia, working with their clan militias, or training at al Shabaab camps. The FBI and grand jury investigations are trying determine the nature of their activities in Somalia and how they might have been recruited, according to two intelligence officials who declined to be identified.
Al Shabaab has its origins in another group called al Ittihad al Islami, whose members were trained by al Qa’eda operatives after the latter came to the Horn of Africa in the early 1990s. But al Qa’eda’s message of global jihad largely “fell on deaf ears” in Somalia, according to a 2007 report published by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point. Instead, the Somalis were more focused on their own domestic disputes.
Al Shabaab survived and then got a huge boost from the US-backed Ethiopian invasion in late 2006. Over the next two years, al Shabaab served as an umbrella group for various prominent Islamic militias, unified in their opposition to the Ethiopian invasion, said Vahid Brown, an author of the CTC report. During that period, al Shabaab drew tens of foreign fighters, initially Europeans, Africans and Somalis from outside the US.
At the US Senate hearing in March, J Philip Mudd, then a senior FBI official, explained that Somalis in the diaspora were not drawn to al Qa’eda’s agenda and had not flocked to join conflicts in places like Chechnya or Kashmir. The situation in Somalia after 2006, according to Mudd, was a very different one.
“I want to emphasise this – because some would say that this is another example of global jihad – and that is the nationalist aspect of this,” Mudd said. “We saw a change in the American community in 2006 after the Ethiopians invaded, and part of this is the draw for people in this country to go fight for their country against a foreign invader.”
The Ethiopian invasion roiled the Minneapolis Somali community. The majority opposed it, but a substantial minority believed the transitional government in Mogadishu had asked for Ethiopia’s assistance. Like other Americans their age, young Somalis spent little time discussing foreign affairs, but a few did feel the same outrage over the invasion as their elders.
In the United States and elsewhere, Mudd noted, terrorist groups don’t recruit openly among the young and disaffected. Instead, young men angry about a certain issue – the Ethiopian invasion, in this case – gravitate toward one another in “clusters” and begin to talk amongst themselves about taking action. Many never do anything. But with the right mix of internet incitement and an enterprising adult who can handle logistics, some young men could find their way to Somalia.
At the same Senate hearing, Andrew Liepman of the National Counterterrorism Center noted that there is no credible evidence thus far that any of the young men who left are training to launch an attack in the United States. “The intentions of Somali kids going to Somalia may be very different from what happens when they go there and train with al Shabaab,” Liepman said. “Al Shabaab is a very different organisation than al Qa’eda. It’s really an alignment of a variety of different groups.”
“The top leadership does have identified linkages to the leadership of al Qa’eda in Pakistan,” Liepman said, “But whether that trickles down to the average 17 or 20- year-old-fighter on the streets of Somalia is really quite questionable. They are devoted to fighting in Somalia, and not yet, most of them, devoted to Osama bin Laden’s global jihad.”
US intelligence has noted that fighters in local militias have previously joined al Qa’eda, most notably in Algeria. But the prospect of radicalised Somalis returning to attack the US is not a top priority for American intelligence. “It’s not the thing I worry about most when I wake up in the morning,” said the intelligence official close to the investigation.
The completion of the investigations currently underway may reveal how these young men were convinced to return to Somalia, but it will offer little closure for their families, and their return remains uncertain. Rumours have swirled that at least one man has returned to Minneapolis, but the FBI will not confirm or deny it, and he has not emerged to tell his story.
If the men are with al Shabaab, it is unclear how easily they can leave its grasp, especially if the group has confiscated the men’s passports and laptops, as Osman Ahmed contends. If they can find their way to the diplomatic mission of an American ally, it’s unclear if the men can return home without facing jail time. Even if they went to Somalia for entirely nationalist purposes, the men would likely be charged with providing material support to a terrorist organisation.
Shirwa Ahmed, at least, was returned to the US by the FBI last November. His family buried him in the Garden of Eden cemetery in Burnsville, just outside of Minneapolis, on a sparkling winter day. There is a video of it on YouTube.
Some Minneapolis Somalis don’t believe Ahmed was a suicide bomber. A few people say he was killed because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another rumour has it that his body bears no signs of damage from a bombing, only signs of strangulation. Those familiar with the case refute both notions.
Ahmed’s grave lies towards the back of the cemetery, without a headstone. He isn’t buried with his kin but between strangers. The ground there slopes down to trees and brush that overlook a pet food warehouse and its fleet of lorries.
Now that summer is here, the graves look sunken and in need of sod. A grey headstone by the cemetery road is engraved, “Peace and Dignity.” An American flag flaps in the breeze. A cemetery worker nearby said he didn’t know if the Ahmed family would put a marker on the grave, as people usually do when the ground has finally thawed.
Neela Banerjee, a former reporter at the New York Times, has covered the war in Iraq and religion in the United States. She lives in Washington.