Mystery Brews In Minn. As Somali Teens Go Missing

An international mystery is brewing in Minneapolis, where America's largest population of Somali expatriates live in a neighborhood known as "Little Mogadishu."

Dozens of Somali teens and young adults have recently gone missing. Some suspect they have gravitated to war-torn Somalia, toward the pull of the jihadist group, al-Shabab.

For more, Tony Cox speaks with Dina Temple-Raston, NPR's national security correspondent, who has been following this story. Omar Jamal, the director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in Minnesota, also joins the conversation.

Missing Somali Teens May Be Terrorist Recruits

Burhan Hassan i i

Burhan Hassan, in 2005, after having received a certificate from the Abubakar mosque in Minneapolis. When he went missing, he was a senior in high school. By all accounts, he was a good student and was supposed to graduate on time in May. His mother wanted him to go to medical school. He disappeared Nov. 4, calling his mother two days later to say he was in Somalia. Courtesy of Osman Ahmed hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Osman Ahmed
Burhan Hassan

Burhan Hassan, in 2005, after having received a certificate from the Abubakar mosque in Minneapolis. When he went missing, he was a senior in high school. By all accounts, he was a good student and was supposed to graduate on time in May. His mother wanted him to go to medical school. He disappeared Nov. 4, calling his mother two days later to say he was in Somalia.

Courtesy of Osman Ahmed
Riverside Plaza buildings i i

Riverside Plaza is the public housing complex that looms large over the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in east Minneapolis. It is now about 85 percent Somali. Nearly all the boys who disappeared lived here. Katia Dunn/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Katia Dunn/NPR
Riverside Plaza buildings

Riverside Plaza is the public housing complex that looms large over the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in east Minneapolis. It is now about 85 percent Somali. Nearly all the boys who disappeared lived here.

Katia Dunn/NPR
Youth programs at mosque i i

Young Somalis in east Minneapolis have few options for spending their time after school. With parents working two and three jobs just to make ends meet, parents see the youth programs at the mosque as a way to keep their kids out of trouble. Abubakar As-Saddique offered everything from Koran memorization to basketball. Courtesy of Osman Ahmed hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Osman Ahmed
Youth programs at mosque

Young Somalis in east Minneapolis have few options for spending their time after school. With parents working two and three jobs just to make ends meet, parents see the youth programs at the mosque as a way to keep their kids out of trouble. Abubakar As-Saddique offered everything from Koran memorization to basketball.

Courtesy of Osman Ahmed

Just hours before President Barack Obama took the oath of office, the FBI had word from overseas of a possible terrorist attack. The threat was linked to a Somali hard-line jihadist group called al-Shabab, or The Youth.

The threat came at a time when the FBI was focused on what looked like a massive recruitment effort of young men from Somali communities in the U.S. As many as two dozen of them have disappeared from Minneapolis alone in the past year.

Federal agents are worried these young men are training in Somalia and could end up returning to the U.S. to launch a terrorist attack.

The most recent disappearances happened last November, on Election Day. That's when 17-year-old Burhan Hassan and six of his friends seemed to vanish. As the rest of the Somali community in the Twin Cities' Cedar-Riverside neighborhood were watching the election returns, the boys slipped away, boarded a plane and headed to Africa.

"My sister called me and said Burhan is missing," says Abdirizak Bihi, Hassan's uncle. He runs a local youth center where all the Somali kids play basketball and video games after school.

For more than a year, Bihi heard rumors about boys in the community suddenly going missing, but he didn't believe it. He thought it was all coffee-shop talk. Then his nephew disappeared.

"In the morning, [his mother] went to his room. Everything he had was gone," he says.

The FBI is investigating whether Hassan and the other boys were recruited to fight in Somalia's civil war by al-Shabab or some other Somali Islamist group. At this point, terrorism experts disagree about how closely al-Shabab is tied to al-Qaida. Al-Shabab is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations, but so far, it has confined its attacks to Africa.

The FBI is concerned that could change. The situation in Somalia is dangerously fluid. The Ethiopian forces that invaded Somalia several years ago are just now starting to withdraw. In that vacuum, al-Shabab has gained strength. On Monday, the group seized the seat of Somalia's parliament, the town of Baidoa, and vowed to impose Shariah law there.

What concerns intelligence officials in the U.S. is that al-Shabab will go the way of many local Islamist militias. Often they start out fighting for local causes only to morph into global jihadists.

The recent attacks in Mumbai are a perfect example. The Lashkar-e-Taiba, or LeT, which is believed to have launched the attack, started out as a group focused on Kashmir. The Mumbai attacks marked a departure. While it was an attack on archrival India, LeT attackers weren't just singling out Indians. The group asked for passports so they could target Americans, British subjects and Jews. Officials think the group has broadened its portfolio and now sees itself as part of a global jihad.

While the latest threat on Inauguration Day turned out to be a false alarm, one intelligence official told NPR that an early concern was that several of the Minnesota boys had returned — U.S. passports in hand — to attack America. That's why the FBI is redoubling its efforts — investigating, questioning parents and knocking on doors.

Life In 'The Towers'

The heart of the Somali community in east Minneapolis is a cluster of six tall public housing buildings known as Riverside Plaza. Somalis here just call the apartment blocks "The Towers." The place is cut off from the rest of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood — an island of sorts. Somalis here could spend their whole lives suffering through the 20-below winters and never stray more than a couple of blocks. It is so cold, people who do venture out run from building to building.

The local mosque is a storefront right next to a bar called Palmer's Pub. The mosque's back doors open out onto The Towers so that those who come for the five daily prayers don't so much as have to cross a street to get there. This area in Minneapolis is like a little Mogadishu.

Nearly all of the young men who have disappeared lived in The Towers. Take an elevator up to any floor, and the doors open to reveal hallways that look 1970s public housing chic — all fluorescent lights and linoleum tile. The floors gleam, as if they have just been waxed. Women gossip at one end of the hallway. Their sons skip down the corridors.

This is where Burhan Hassan grew up. It was easy to imagine him running up and down the hallways of this complex, fully aware that he could knock on just about any door and expect to be greeted by a fellow Somali. Omar Jamal, who runs a local legal aid society for the community, says the children who came here have had to straddle two worlds.

"Most of those kids are going through an identity crisis," says Jamal. "They don't know who to belong to: 'Who are they? Who am I? I am not American, I am not Somali.' I see them as victims."

Settling In Minnesota

The Somalis first started arriving in Minnesota in the early 1990s. That's when the Lutheran Church helped them to escape famine and war in Somalia. Most came here without knowing how to speak English. Many were illiterate even in their own language.

The census says about 40,000 Somalis live in Minnesota. Law enforcement officials say the actual number is almost twice that much. Most of them live in the Twin Cities.

The Somali kids who arrived as small children managed the transition pretty well. They got good grades. They took advanced courses in high school.

Hassan was supposed to graduate on time in May. His mother was saving up to send him to medical school. His relatives are stunned he left. He seemed like the perfect son — a little geeky, maybe a little too serious, but he was always certain not to let his mother worry, always careful to stay out of trouble. He was the youngest in his family, so his mother doted on him a bit.

His other uncle, Hussein Samatar, said he was exceptionally close to his mother. "Sometimes he would call even during the school day," says Samatar. He would "take a break and would call his mom just to say, 'Class is going well, and I will see you soon.' "

Hassan's single-parent existence is mirrored by the other young men who have disappeared. All of them were reared by single mothers, and all of them were particularly devout Muslims. They all prayed and signed up for youth programs at two local mosques — one near The Towers and another across the river in St. Paul. The local mosque was Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, the biggest mosque in Minneapolis and just a stone's throw from The Towers. The Dawah Institute in St. Paul was the other.

Dawah is in a converted cinder block storefront in a deserted strip mall. There are rows of plywood shelves to store shoes at the front door. Masking tape marks off lanes on the carpet, so those who come here for prayers can line up in regimental rows. On a recent evening, Imam Hassan Mohamud is helping a small group of young men and women memorize the Koran. According to the missing boys' parents, their sons spent a lot of time here. Many spent the night.

The imam said that the young men might have come for the occasional prayer, but he didn't know them personally.

"We are not missing any single student who is connected to the mosque and the Dawah Islamic center," he says. "And that has to be very clear."

Convincing The Youth

The imam has used henna to dye his beard a bright orange, as many devout Muslims do. When we speak to him, he is joined by the mosque's youth director, an African-American from Queens, N.Y., named Neelain Waled Mohammed. He is defensive, too, and provides a flurry of denials.

"If I were a parent, I'd be saying 'Where's my youth?' " he bellowed. "They should be banging on the doors, and we've had nothing like that."

The imam agrees, nodding his head vigorously. "Exactly," he says, motioning his assistant to go on.

"If I was a parent, I'll be saying 'Where's my son?' " Mohammed continues, pounding a table for emphasis. "You've sent him away."

It is hard not to notice that Mohammed's thumbs both look like they have been broken after the first joint. He says he used to work security for luminaries like Muhammad Ali. That background, he says, has made him just the guy to run karate and self-defense classes for the youth at the mosque. He says he does it for discipline.

Contrary to what the Dawah elders say, Burhan Hassan's uncle Bihi says both he and other families have gone to the mosques to ask about their sons, but they haven't received any answers.

As you might expect, Bihi has relived the last day he saw Hassan a million times, hoping to see some sign or indication of what was about to happen.

"His mom tried to drop him off to school," Bihi says quietly. "He said, 'Ah mom, I'm going to take the train to school.' Then she saw him again before he left. And she said, 'Well, the train's gone already, you're late.' He said, 'No, no, my friend so and so, my classmate will pick me up.' And that — that was the last time she saw him."

Hassan's uncle says someone managed to convince the young men that it was their duty — as good Muslims, as good Somalis — to return to their homeland and fight in its civil war. The FBI believes this may be happening in other American cities as well. They have launched investigations in Boston and Columbus, Ohio.

In the nearly three months since he disappeared, the only word from Hassan came two days after he left. He called his mother. "He said he was in Somalia, he's fine, well, and that he would call when he gets his own cell phone," Bihi says wistfully. "Then he doesn't call now."

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