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Homegrown Jihad

ISSUE:  Winter 2010
Gray winter skies loom over the prominence of a monument. It's surrounded by tall, thin evergreens. The ground is covered with hand-sized stones.
A simple Islamic arch in silhouette is near the grave where Shirwa Ahmed is buried at the Garden of Eden Cemetery in Burnsville, Minnesota. The twenty-six-year-old Minneapolis man’s remains were returned to his family after the FBI identified him as one of the suicide bombers in the October 2008 bombings in Bossaso, Somalia. (Richard Sennott / Star Tribune / Minneapolis–St. Paul 2009)

One morning in October 2008, a twenty-six-year-old American named Shirwa Ahmed drove a Toyota Surf SUV packed with explosives toward the office of the local intelligence service in Bossaso, a port city in the Somali state of Puntland. The sun was rising rapidly in the cloudless sky and a breeze from the Gulf of Aden blew across the rooftops and minarets of Bossaso’s skyline. Shirwa prayed and mumbled “Allahu Akbar” as he neared his target.

Meanwhile, 350 miles to the west in the city of Hargeisa, capital of the self-declared republic of Somaliland, three other young men had enlisted for a similar mission. Each of the modern day kamikazes gripped the steering wheels of their speeding truck bombs and raced toward their targets: the presidential palace, a United Nations compound, and the Ethiopian Consulate.

Somalia, which is predominantly Muslim, and Ethiopia, which is predominantly Christian, are historical rivals. In the years after 9/11, the US allied closely with Ethiopia while Somalia festered in chaos. Ethiopian tanks rolled into Somalia in December 2006 to topple the standing regime, an Islamist government known as the Union of Islamic Courts. A loose network of local sharia courts extending throughout the country, the Islamic Courts transcended clan divisions and was the closest thing to a unified government the country had had in almost twenty years. But they also enforced a strict, Taliban-like interpretation of Islam and harbored international terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda. The US backed the Ethiopian military with weapons and logistics, and by the end of the year, the Ethiopians had overrun Mogadishu.

But the swift military victory, like the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and defeat of the Taliban in 2001, would prove deceptive. The Islamic Courts soon splintered; its political wing absconded to Eritrea, while its militant wing, known as al Shabaab or “the youth,” pledged to wage guerilla war against the Ethiopians and the “transitional federal government” they had propped up. Al Shabaab framed their war as a nationalist struggle against foreign invaders, a religious battle against Ethiopia’s mostly Christian army, and a colonial campaign against what they perceived as a US conspiracy to control the Islamic world. Armed with this palette of anthems, al Shabaab and its supporters combed the Somalian diaspora for young men willing to fight. Shirwa Ahmed was among those who answered the call.

In late 2007, Shirwa, a naturalized US citizen, left his home in Minneapolis to wage jihad in his birthplace of Somalia. He traveled to East Africa on an American passport. Fifteen years earlier, his family had fled Somalia to escape a civil war, hoping to give Shirwa a plethora of opportunities they hadn’t had for themselves. But he shunned their American dream and returned to take part in the same prolonged civil war that his mother had rescued him from. Shortly before 10:30 A.M. that October morning, Shirwa’s SUV plowed into Bossaso’s intelligence office. The blast killed at least five people. Another twenty-five died in the wreckage from the three suicide attacks in Hargeisa.

The impact of the bombings reverberated back in Minneapolis when, a few days later, Shirwa’s sister received a call from Somalia. The unfamiliar voice on the other line conveyed a simple, devastating message. “Your brother is a martyr,” it said. “He is in paradise.” The FBI confirmed the caller’s claim one week later when they identified pieces of Shirwa’s detonated body while sifting the wreckage at the blast sites. They shipped Shirwa’s remains back to Minneapolis. Last December, he was buried in the frozen ground of a cemetery in a suburb south of Minneapolis. “A man from Minneapolis became what we believe to be the first US citizen to carry out a terrorist suicide bombing,” FBI director Robert Mueller said, during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in February 2009. “It appears that this individual was radicalized here in the United States, in his hometown in Minnesota.”

Even more disconcerting, however, was the knowledge that Shirwa wasn’t alone. Over the previous two years, as many as twenty young Somali American men had disappeared from their homes in the Minneapolis area to move to Somalia. Most of them vanished without warning. A few called home on occasion. Still, no one knew exactly where they were, what they were doing, who they were with, or what they planned to do next. Shirwa’s fate confirmed everyone’s worst fears: that the boys were training alongside al Shabaab. Since his death, five more Somali Americans from Minneapolis have died in Somalia, one of them in yet another suspected suicide bombing. In Mueller’s speech, the FBI director described the possibility that young Somali American men were being recruited to travel halfway around the world to “kill themselves and perhaps many others” as nothing less than a “perversion of the immigrant story.”

Shirwa, like most Somali Americans his age, knew three worlds: childhood in Somalia, early adolescence in a Kenyan refugee camp, and life in the United States. The first disruption in their lives began in January 1991, when Somali president Siad Barre’s regime collapsed and the country quickly descended into a clan-based civil war. UN peacekeepers showed up to deliver aid and American soldiers soon followed to take out the warlords responsible for the worst violence. In October 1993, two US Blackhawk helicopters were shot down in Mogadishu and the ensuing street battles left eighteen American soldiers dead. After TV stations broadcast scenes of Somalis dragging American corpses through the streets of Mogadishu, President Bill Clinton began withdrawing US forces.

Refugees, meanwhile, streamed out of the country. Many of them settled in UN-run camps in northern Kenya. In 1987, the State Department began admitting Somali refugees into the US, though only 110 individuals received refugee status over the first four years of the program. Soon those numbers increased: in 1992 more than 1,400 were admitted, and the number jumped to almost 3,500 by 1994. Adjusting to American life wasn’t easy. One of the passengers on a 1993 flight from Somalia recalled as many as 500 people crammed aboard. “The toilet was overflowing. No one had ever been taught how to use a bathroom,” he said. Another Somali, Yusef Yusef, made a movie titled Flight 13, a nod to that flight, which portrayed Somalis struggling to use washing machines and video games. “Somalis would go into stores and have to follow each other down the aisles,” he said. “They only knew one thing: the walk from their homes to Karmel Mall”—the main Somali shopping center in Minneapolis—“and back home.”

Years later, the State Department refugee program would be suspended after DNA tests revealed widespread fraud and misrepresentation in the camps, mostly involving applicants presenting nonrelatives as family or second wives as sisters. Added Yusef, “All these people knew were lies. They were scared. They didn’t know how to tell the truth.”

Somalis were originally sent to different cities around the country, including Nashville, Atlanta, and San Diego. When Shirwa Ahmed’s family moved to the US in 1995, they stayed in Portland, Oregon. But, like many others, they became discouraged by the high cost of living and the competition for unskilled labor. Somalis heard that jobs were more plentiful in Minnesota; better yet, a strong social services network existed already. In previous decades, the Lutheran World Federation and Catholic Relief Services had settled tens of thousands of Hmong refugees into the Twin Cities. An abundance of public housing provided yet another incentive, and before long, thousands of Somalis were migrating to Minnesota, despite the frigid winters. Most of them moved into the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

For more than a century, Cedar-Riverside had served as an entry point for newly arrived immigrants. During the middle of the nineteenth century, scores of Norwegians, Danes, Swedes, and Finns lived in squatter settlements along the Mississippi River and worked the flour mills that lined the riverbank. Ethiopians and Koreans came in the 1950s and ’60s. A wave of hippies, who relished the area’s multicultural yet somewhat down-and-out vibe, followed. Then came the Hmong. In the late 1960s, city planners constructed a cluster of apartment buildings in Cedar-Riverside that transformed a plot of land into a concrete jungle. Officially named Riverside Plaza, the building subsequently became known as “the towers” or “crack stacks.”

One afternoon last spring, a dozen Somali teenagers leaned against the brick wall that fronts the Brian Coyle Community Center in Cedar-Riverside. They wore baggy jeans and baseball caps with flat brims cocked to the side, and their conversation sounded lifted from a Wu-Tang video. In recent years, the neighborhood around the Coyle Center has become the site of a running feud between a smattering of Somali gangs that go by names like Hawiye Bad Boys, Somali Mafia, Ruff Tuff Somalis, and Madhibaan with Attitude. (Hawiye and Madhiban are the names of two Somali clans.) Seven Somalis died in gang-related violence just in 2008.

Many young Somalis have sought to fuse American hip-hop culture with their own. Mohammad, a Somali man in his late twenties, wearing dark denim jeans and an orange Coogi track top, leaned against one of the pillars in front of the Coyle Center and explained how this came to be. “If you remember how the Bloods and the Crips started out, it was just about being with your boys,” he said. “Sure these kids might start doing fucked up shit, but mostly they are not banging as gangbangers.” The sense of brotherhood, in other words, preceded the urge to do violence.

“It’s kind of an identity crisis or conflict that these kids are feeling. When they come from the refugee camps, most of them don’t have any educational background; they come here at fourteen or fifteen and have never gone to school before,” explained Farhan (Omar) Hurre, the executive director of the Abubakar as-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis. “These kids are placed in high school because of their age, not their educational background. Then they struggle because of the language barrier and the culture and they drop out.”

Most of the dropouts wind up loitering around the Coyle Center, the Somali community’s base in Minneapolis. Some describe the surrounding neighborhood, Cedar-Riverside, as Little Mogadishu. Shimmering skyscrapers—and the Metrodome, which, with its white soft roof, looks like a giant puff pastry—rise above Minneapolis to one side. The Riverside towers, a public housing complex that is home to as many as a quarter of the estimated 60,000 Somalis living in Minnesota, rise on the other. The Coyle Center houses a basketball court, library, computer lab, classrooms, and a hall where public health officials, police, and the media can engage the Somali community. In the park outside, Somali women dressed in bright, flowing headscarves and tunics pass warm afternoons conversing on benches while their children swing, climb on the jungle gym, or play soccer on the hard court nearby. When Somali president Sheikh Sharif Ahmed came to the United States this past October, he spent several days in Minneapolis seeking support for his government against the al Shabaab–led insurgency. The visit, during which he also met with families whose sons had died in Somalia, underscored the importance of Minneapolis for Somalia and Somalis everywhere.

Stories of the missing youth have created a crisis for some Somali parents. Since the onset of the civil war, many of them had deepened their faith as a way to try and make sense of the otherwise incomprehensible violence. The mosque, in turn, became a sanctuary. Shirwa’s disappearance and ultimate fate has prompted some reconsideration. “First we worried about street gangs, now we worry about sending them to the mosque,” a young father of two boys told me. The previous summer, he had sent his oldest son to Somalia, not for jihad, but “to see the rural areas.” “He takes for granted that when he opens the refrigerator, it will be filled with food. Most people in Somalia don’t even have refrigerators,” the father said. “But when he came back, he showed more appreciation for his parents too.”

During the half hour that I stood in front of the Coyle Center with Mohammad (in the orange track suit top), one of the youth directors came out three times to tell him and his friends to leave the entranceway. They were setting a bad example for the younger kids. While he was heading to his car, I asked Mohammad how important Somali traditions, especially religion, were in his life. “Street kids don’t know nothing about religion,” he said. I then asked him if he knew Shirwa or any of the other missing boys.

“I know faces. I don’t know names,” he replied. “And anyways, nobody cares about this. Every man is his own man. They chose that life. It’s a fucked-up life to choose, but anything is possible. The sky’s the limit. When we heard about that Shirwa kid we said, ‘That’s fucked up.’ They know that if you do that shit you go to hell.”

Trick-or-treaters were pacing the nearby sidewalks on October 31, 2008, two days after Shirwa Ahmed had blown himself up in Bossaso, when another young man from Minneapolis finalized his plans. Burhan Hassan walked into University Travel, a Sikh-owned travel agency in Cedar-Riverside, at dusk. He was seventeen years old, a senior at Roosevelt High School. That night, he paid $1,300 in cash for a round-trip journey, leaving on November 4, 2008 and returning on January 28, 2009. No one claims to know where he got the money. His itinerary had him departing from Minneapolis, connecting in Boston, flying on to Amsterdam, and then, finally, to Nairobi. From there he would make his way into Somalia.

An official-looking portrait of a boy, looking perhaps old enough to be in high school. His hair is close-cropped and his ears stick out. He wears a white T-shirt. He does not smile.
Burhan Hassan, in an undated photo released by his family at a December 2008 news conference.

Burhan shared an apartment with his mother, Zienab Bihie, on the nineteenth floor of the tallest tower in Riverside Plaza. His father had died in a car accident in Kuwait around the time that the civil war began in Somalia. Burhan fled the country with his mother, sister, and two brothers; they lived in Kenya for years before moving to Minneapolis in 1995. Thin, short, near-sighted, and perhaps all too aware of his own frailty, he began dreaming of becoming a doctor. His sister was studying medicine in China and spoke fluent Mandarin, which, according to Burhan’s uncle, allowed the family to eat free at any Chinese restaurant in town when the sister came home on break.

When his mother went to Burhan’s room, he was not in his bed. His luggage and laptop were missing. The latch on the cabinet where he stored his passport was unlocked. Burhan’s passport was gone.

Burhan hadn’t told his mother that he planned to travel. On Election Day, he simply snuck out of his house—and the country. The Somali neighborhoods were raucous that evening as results trickled in indicating that Barack Obama would become the next president. Every time Zienab phoned Burhan, her calls went straight to voice mail. She thought he was out celebrating with his friends. She eventually fell asleep. But at 3 A.M., she bolted awake and ran into Burhan’s room. His luggage and laptop were missing. The latch on the cabinet where he stored his passport was unlocked. Burhan’s passport was gone.

Zienab and her brother, Abdirizak Bihi, filed a police report the next morning. But according to them, the police moved slowly and wasted valuable time. Burhan and three other Somali Americans were inching closer to Somalia by the minute. “If we could have filed the police report [earlier],” Bihi told me, “the FBI might have stopped them before they landed in Kenya.” Instead, the boys touched down in Nairobi and traveled speedily overland—and finally, overseas—into Somalia. The trip was exhausting. The boys’ bodies couldn’t handle the new environment, two of the mothers told me. One of them got a stomach bug. Burhan lost his glasses.

A slight, balding, mustachioed man stands in a field. He wears an expression of worry and a pair of squarish glasses. His hair is tousled, perhaps by wind.
Abdirizak Bihi on a soccer field next to the Brian Coyle Community Center. (Jeff Wheeler / Star Tribune / Minneapolis–St. Paul 2009)

Almost ten years of age separated Burhan Hassan and Shirwa Ahmed, and no one I spoke to ever saw the boys together, but each spent a considerable amount of time at the Abubakar as-Siddique Islamic Center. Zienab hadn’t thought twice about that. She had taken comfort knowing that her son was at the mosque, rather than in the streets being tempted by Somali gangs. That soon changed. Following news of Shirwa’s bombing and Burhan’s disappearance, the Abubakar mosque became a subject of speculation, suspicion, and contention in the Somali community. A Somali journalist in Minneapolis told me that he had attended a meeting at Abubakar’s sister mosque, in Cedar-Riverside, during which a young jihadist regaled rapt crowds with tales of adventure and honor. Burhan’s family alleged that individuals from the mosque were obstructing the FBI’s investigation. In late November, aviation authorities even prevented Abubakar’s imam from boarding an airplane.

But it seemed unlikely that one mosque or one imam could convince two dozen young men to leave their jobs, their families, and their educations for a battlefield in Somalia. There needed to be a spark, an incident to transform religious vigor into militancy. The Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in December 2006 provided it. In the months after the invasion, Somali politicians traveled throughout the diaspora, encouraging young men to come defend their country. In November 2007, an associate of the ousted Islamic Courts government gave a keynote address at the Minneapolis Convention Center in which he goaded the crowd: “Come to see us in Asmara [the capital of Eritrea]. Let us get to know each other. We will offer training. Then whoever wants to fight for two months, like the Eritreans used to do, can then go back to school.”

Were a couple of rabble-rousing speeches enough? Paul Gill, a lecturer and terrorism expert at the University College in Dublin, doesn’t think so. He believes that group psychology oftentimes provides a better template for understanding terrorism recruitment than religion does. While Burhan was apparently never seen with Shirwa, he had become good friends with a nineteen-year-old college student named Abdisalam Ali, who would leave for Somalia on the same day as Burhan. When it comes to recruiting suicide bombers, Gill told me, “the group becomes the primary source of sustenance. It becomes more about group in-love than about hating America or hating the West.” As two examples, he cited the July 7, 2005, bombers in London and the cluster of young men who left the Moroccan town of Tetouan to commit suicide terrorism in Spain and Iraq. “It’s much like joining the Marines or becoming a member of a football club: it’s hard to back out once you’re in. Suicide bombers don’t want to let their group down. When it comes down to the crunch they are not going to back away or defect.”

Late last year, al Shabaab released a propaganda video that revealed the sophistication of its “pitch.” The video featured a handsome Caucasian male in his midtwenties who spoke English with an American accent. He identified himself as Sheikh Abu Mansoor al-Amriki, or “the American one.” He squatted in a patch of scrub brush in Somalia, sporting long black hair, a black beard and a camouflage hat turned backward. Were he not toting a weapon, al-Amriki would have looked at home in the parking lot at a Phish concert.

He stared into the camera. “We’re waiting for the enemy to come,” he said in a low voice, checking over his shoulder periodically. They were waiting, he added, for “the Ethiopian invaders.” “We hear that there might be more than a thousand. So we’re planning to ambush, blow up as many of their vehicles as we can. And kill as many as we can and take everything they’ve got.” Al-Amriki broke into a big smile.

As the soundtrack faded in, with an American singing in slow, measured rhymes, it became obvious that the video’s target audience was young Americans.

Blow by blow / Year by year / I’m keeping them kafir’s land
War by war / Only gonna make our black flag soar
Drip by drip / Shot by shot / Only gonna give us the death we sought

Another American voice, slightly deeper, rapped over the singing:

Along came America to the Saudi sand
Exposing to the world all their bloody hands
The creeper spread / Mujahids were bred
Only more oppressing people war ahead

The video fused religion, nationalism, and twenty-first-century youthful angst with frightening conviction. “Al Shabaab is hot and it’s sexy right now,” Cheryl Robertson, a public health expert at the University of Minnesota who works closely with the Somali community, told me. Al Shabaab, selling their unique brand of hip-hop jihad, made it look fun.

Burhan Hassan called home after a few weeks. His timing wasn’t accidental and it suggested that al Shabaab provided more than just sexy packaging; it also seemed to have a network of informers in Minneapolis. It was early December, and family members of the missing boys had announced a joint press conference with leading figures from Abubakar mosque. After weeks of trading barbs in the media, the conference would offer a chance for each side to air its suspicions and misgivings about the other. Just thirty minutes before it began, however, Burhan—along with two other boys—called home. They didn’t mention the press conference but the tone of their voices conveyed the sense that they were having a good time back in Somalia. Maybe the boys weren’t in an al Shabaab training camp after all? “No families wanted to put their sons in danger, so most of them cancelled,” said Bihi, Burhan’s uncle. “This happened twice. Somebody here is obviously communicating with them and telling them what to do.”

Burhan called again a month later, this time with a more explicit request: that his family stop talking to reporters. “Do you want me to go to Guantanamo?” he asked his mother.

On March 11, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs held an open hearing regarding the missing Somali boys. The deputy director for intelligence in the National Counterterrorism Center and the assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch were called to testify. The deputy director admitted that he didn’t have “credible reporting” to show that Americans who had traveled to Somalia planned to return to strike in the US, but added, “We cannot rule out that potential given the indoctrination and training they might have received in East Africa.” Nongovernment witnesses included the youth director of the Coyle Center and an expert on Somalia from Davidson College. Bihi had also been invited, but he passed his invitation to Osman Ahmed, Burhan’s distant uncle. Osman wore a tan, loose-fitting suit on the day of the hearing and described his nephew as being “mentally and physically kidnapped.”

Over the ensuing days, six of the missing boys called home. They pleaded with their parents to stop giving interviews. On Friday the thirteenth, Burhan phoned. His older brother answered. “Is Mom there?” Burhan asked. His brother explained that Zienab was out, but that if Burhan left his phone number, she would call him right back. Burhan said he didn’t have a number to share.

“Come back, Burhan. Please. You won’t be treated like a criminal.”

Burhan ignored his brother’s plea. “What time is Mom coming back?” he asked.

According to Zienab, Burhan sounded robotic and unnatural when he called from Somalia. He told her that all the media coverage had made him a target. If someone thought that he belonged to al Shabaab, Burhan explained, they might try to kill him. Zienab believed that al Shabaab was pressuring—perhaps even threatening—her son to convince his family to stop talking. She insisted to me that Burhan didn’t know anything about Somalia and didn’t speak Somali. She and other parents focused on portraying their children as Americans, even though their children had rejected America.

Zienab and Burhan spoke again in April. He kept the conversation brief. As usual, Zienab told me, “there were no specifics. He is a hundred percent not free.” Burhan asked Zienab, once again, to stop talking to the media. Zienab, in reply, asked him about his health.

“How are you? Did you find your glasses?”

“Yes,” he replied. “I have them on.”

An old woman wearing colorful, flowing garments sits against a blue cinderblock wall. She rests her head in her hand, and her eyes are closed. It's as if she's asleep.
A woman listens to news about three missing Somali boys at a December 2008 press conference called jointly by family members and leading figures from Abubakar as-Saddique Islamic Center. (Jim Gerhz / Star Tribune / Minneapolis–St. Paul 2009)

Every Sunday, Zienab invited the parents of the other missing boys to her apartment on the nineteenth floor of the towers. They formed a support group. At first they traced the final days and weeks before their children disappeared, looking for clues, but nothing exceptional emerged from their memories. Zienab recalled Burhan seeming distant and not eating much. Still, what could she have done differently? Zienab and her guests, battling depression and isolation within the community, increasingly focused on helping one another.

I joined Zienab and one other woman on the first Sunday in May. Zienab welcomed me into the apartment, wearing a black blouse, an orange skirt, and a black headscarf. Outside, in the hallway, tube lights buzzed overhead. The walls of the apartment were bare. The vents poured out heat. Zienab opened a window to cool the room. The throaty gargle of a motorcycle engine passed by.

Zienab had lived in the apartment for about eight years. But with Burhan gone and her other children all grown up, she told me that she planned to move out within a few weeks. “There is no company for me here anymore. All I have is pain. It’s like a civil war here now,” she said. The other woman present hardly spoke, appearing to be paralyzed with trauma. “I came to the United States looking for peace,” Zienab added, dabbing her eyes. “I’ve lost my family. Our community is divided into two parts. Some people say to me: ‘What are you getting by talking to the media and the FBI? Do you want to put your son away to jail with a life sentence?’” Maybe they are right, she thought. “There are criminals roaming free. But where is Burhan? Every morning I am crying, I swear to God, because at the time I wake up, I usually wake him. But he is not there.”

Cheryl Roberston, the public health expert and professor at the University of Minnesota, recently conducted a comprehensive survey of the Somali community in the Twin Cities that questions some of the conventional wisdom about war trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. One such assumption is that the more trauma an individual encounters, the better he or she is at handling it, as if you become numb to the sight of blood or death or killing. Zienab’s experience pointed to something else, however. She had navigated war and displacement and refugee camps, losing friends and family all the way. But then she reached a breaking point. “I never thought of fifty-year-old mothers as a high-risk crowd,” Robertson told me. “If we read the war trauma literature, men have the shittiest things happen to them. But our analysis showed that women do worse with the trauma, even though they do quite well for some time.” In other words, women could endure trauma for longer, postponing its effects, but they eventually broke—and hard. “For men, for every additional traumatic event there was an uptick in their decrease of functionality. For women, we saw that for up to eighteen traumatic events, their functioning remained unchanged. But after eighteen, it went off the charts.” Apparently, Zienab had reached the equivalent of number eighteen.

In her apartment, I asked Zienab if she regretted publicizing Burhan’s disappearance.

“Not one bit,” she said. “We know that there was a plan for three, four, or five more waves of kids to go to Somalia, but we stopped them so that no other mothers or grandmothers have to go through this trauma. But there is a powerful group—a minority group—that is making any delay in the government’s case into a way to show that we are stooges. They are trying to tell the community that we are liars, being used by the infidels. The government is not helping our case at all . . . All the guys at the administration of Abubakar are still celebrating.”

Bihi told me he suspected that the FBI’s slow speed in prosecuting a case against those responsible revealed a racial double standard. (In August, three Somali Americans pleaded guilty to terrorism charges stemming from their recent travels to Somalia, though no one representing Abubakar has been indicted.) “If these kids were Caucasian and they had been kidnapped and taken to Somalia,” he said, “the USS JFK would be on the shores of Somalia.”

The tales of missing Somali youth—and their possible return to the US as trained jihadists—strained the Somali community’s ties with the rest of the city, which were never great to begin with. One controversy involved a number of Somali taxi drivers who refused to drive drunk passengers, for religious reasons. “They’ve ruined the business,” a disgruntled taxi driver told me, referring to the Somali drivers who, he added, “can’t even find the road under their feet.” In another case, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against a Somali-run charter school that mandated a prayer break on Friday. And now, with the FBI canvassing neighborhoods looking for information about the missing boys, Somalis were becoming suspicious of anyone who asked questions. I got a phone call one night from a Somali spokesman, on behalf of his friend, asking me if I worked for the FBI. I had called the friend earlier that day to interview him and had uttered the words “Washington, DC,” “questions,” and “Somalis,” on his voice mail. Spooked, he in turn had asked the spokesman to call me and find out what I wanted. Only after I reminded the spokesman that I had interviewed him in Minneapolis a week earlier did he convey to the guy that I was a legitimate journalist.

The sense of mistrust deepened in April, when the FBI raided Mustaqbal Express, a popular hawala, or money transfer office. Hawalas have flourished due to the absence of a banking system in Somalia and are the primary means through which members of the diaspora can send remittances back home. After 9/11, the FBI raided many of the hawalas in Minneapolis on suspicions that they were supporting al Qaeda. The Patriot Act had made it a deportable offense to send remittances to any organization suspected of supporting terrorism, and some hawalas were forced to shut down. With time, new ones opened and by 2009, business was booming. Abdirahman Omar, the manager of Mustaqbal Express, told me that more than $300,000 moved through his office every month—and there are three other hawalas just down the hall. Between the hawalas and the internet, Somali Americans have never felt more connected to their homeland. And yet, Somalis around the world are no more unified now than in 1991, when the civil war broke out. “The sense of collective belonging for Somalis has been destroyed,” said Ahmed Samatar, the dean of the Institute of Global Citizenship at Macalester College in St. Paul.

Village Market Mall, the Somali mall in south Minneapolis that houses Mustaqbal Express, is a former factory since turned into a maze of windowless shopping aisles lined with bright dresses and headscarves. Men sip tea and play dominoes in the handful of restaurants and the smell of sandalwood greets shoppers at the entrance. On the morning of April 8, FBI agents streamed through the entrance. “I was sitting with a customer, doing someone’s tax forms, when fifteen agents came in,” Abdirahman recalled. It was around 9:30 A.M. “They were wearing bulletproof vests that read ‘FBI’ across the chest. They had guns but they were friendly and polite.” One customer abandoned his transaction and ran without waiting to get his change. The agents stayed for almost five hours, rummaging through files and computer drives. They seized business ledgers, receipts, and copies of the office’s hard drives, according to the warrant issued by the Eastern District of Missouri’s US District Court. They asked Abdirahman about “certain individuals in the community” and whether he sent money to pirates. To his surprise, he said, “they never asked me anything about the missing youth.”

The FBI raided two other hawalas besides Mustaqbal that morning, and the raids reverberated deeply throughout the community. A month later, Abdirahman told me that business had been “affected a lot.” Remittances were down more than 50 percent. “People think we are in trouble and that we are targeted by the FBI. They don’t want to be on our records,” he said. The FBI claimed publicly that the raids were unconnected to the missing youth. But it seems that no one in Minneapolis believes that. And to preempt the likelihood of finding themselves at the center of the ongoing terrorism investigation, Abdirahman said, Somalis are quick to point fingers at everyone else. In some ways, a prisoner’s dilemma has unfolded. “Some individuals are telling the FBI things that are not correct against other people. They go to the FBI agents and say wrong information about people who are innocent. They claim they are working for this guy, or these groups. Most of this is just personality or maybe clan issues.”

“There is a lot of mistrust,” Jeanine Brudenell, the Somali community liaison officer from the Minneapolis Police Department, told me. Plus, “this population does not trust the police.” But like so many things affecting Somali Americans in Minneapolis, she thought it had more to do with Somalia than the US. “The Somalis are basing their experience with law enforcement not on what’s here, but on what they recall. The police here wear the same color shirts that they used to wear back in Kenya in the refugee camps.” She added, “Everything that happens in Somalia plays itself out here.”

Two rows of people, wrapped in drab-colored monochromatic garments, bow down, their foreheads touching the red and gold carpet. In the back of the room sit women and children, watching.
Worshippers attend evening prayers during an open house at the Abubakar as-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis in February 2009. (Craig Lassig/AP Images)

I visited the Abubakar Islamic Center late one afternoon. The mosque, where some believed the missing boys had been recruited to go to Somalia and whose prayer leader had been placed on a no-fly list, displays none of the signature elements of Islamic architecture. It’s a two-story brick structure without arches, domes, or minarets. A roofing company and a church previously occupied the building.

Shortly after I came in through a pair of ochre metal doors, the call to prayer sounded. A poster tacked onto the wall advertised the website Omar Hurre, the mosque’s thirty-year-old executive director, was running late for our meeting, caught in rush hour traffic, so a receptionist in a dishdasha led me into a wedding hall at the back compound. Regal couches lined the walls, which were decorated with white drapes.

“If you put this in the context of what was going on at the time, it is not surprising that such a young kid, based on nationalist sentiment and religious sentiment, would decide to go back and fight in Somalia.”

Hurre finally entered the room and asked that I call him Omar. He told me that his given name, Furhan, “is an old, nomadic name that is shared between boys and girls.” He spoke softly, and when I brought up the missing youth, he acted as surprised by their disappearance as many of the parents. “They were all good students who went to their high schools or universities, prayed, and took part in our youth programs,” Omar said. Burhan, he added, remained a particular mystery. “It was kind of a shock to everyone, if you will. He was not friends with anybody. He just concentrated on his education. He memorized the whole Quran here and there was a big celebration. He was not interested in wars.”

Still, Omar explained, it made sense that these boys were tempted by jihad. “If you put this in the context of what was going on at the time, it is not surprising that such a young kid, based on nationalist sentiment and religious sentiment, would decide to go back and fight in Somalia,” he said. “You see, all around, in America you see guys who were from Kosovo going back to fight against the Serbians and the Bosnians are doing the same. Even the Israelis are going back and joining the IDF to fight the Palestinians, and then coming back here. So it’s kind of understandable. The only thing people are wondering is ‘Who told them this?’ ‘Where did they get these feelings from?’ And you know what? They can get this from anywhere—guys calling from Somalia, YouTube recruitment videos, whatever.”

I told him that a few people believed that the mosque had channeled the boys to Somalia.

“If you dig a little deeper,” he replied, “you can see who is telling a lie and who is telling the truth.” Omar used the pulpit during Friday prayers to emphasize the baselessness of the claims that Bihi and others had made against the leaders of Abubakar. “We have a responsibility to report everything that is happening to the mosque to those who donate.” Anyway, he said, all the finger pointing has “made a bad situation worse” within the Somali community. Who can be trusted? Who is working with the FBI? Who is working with al Shabaab?

I asked Omar whether Burhan’s family, despite their harsh words toward Abubakar, would be welcome at the mosque if they wanted to come and pray.

“Actually, we have nothing against them. But we will not guarantee their safety from the community who prays here. So if they say they are coming, we would advise them not to,” Omar said. He chuckled and shrugged his shoulders. “Because there would be a lot of, at least, verbal attacks against them.”

In May, Burhan Hassan called home twice more. He sounded upbeat. “He was acting all happy,” Zienab told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “The last thing he said was ‘Mom, how are you doing? I love you. I love my brothers and sister . . . I miss you a lot.’” Zienab hoped that her son had changed his mind.

But then, on Friday, June 5, a week after Burhan’s scheduled graduation from Roosevelt High School, Zienab received another phone call. This time it wasn’t Burhan, however. The caller informed her that her son had been killed in Mogadishu.

Conflicting reports emerged. Some said a stray artillery shell had hit the house where Burhan was staying. But Bihi, Burhan’s uncle, alleged that al Shabaab had murdered him. Burhan had apparently told Zienab that he planned to leave Somalia soon and return to the US. Bihi told Minneapolis Public Radio, “Probably those people who recruited him would not have been happy to see him [back] here. His reappearance in the United States, and in Minnesota, would have been a very big, important step in this investigation of the recruited children.”

Federal authorities had no way of confirming Burhan’s death since war was raging in Mogadishu and al Shabaab controlled much of the city. But weeks later, another al Shabaab video was released that showed Burhan in a white, collared shirt. He was wearing his glasses and smiling. Text at the bottom of the screen read: Shaheed Inshallah Burhan al-Amriki—Burhan the American, a Martyr (God Willing). Burhan’s death compounded the grief and dissent within the Somali-American community in Minneapolis. Collectively, they inched one step closer to number eighteen.


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