Young Somali-Americans in Minneapolis have been vanishing without warning for the past year and a half. On Wednesday, for the first time, the FBI hinted at an answer to the mysterious disappearances: There are recruiters operating in Minnesota helping young men make their way to Somalia. The young men who left are believed to have joined the ranks of a Somali terrorist group called al-Shabab.
"We do worry that there is a potential that these individuals could be indoctrinated by al-Qaida while they are in Somalia and then return to the United States with the intention to launch attacks," Andrew Liepman, the deputy director of the National Counterterrrorism Center, told a Senate committee Wednesday. "They could provide al-Qaida with trained extremists inside the United States."
Here's one piece of worrisome evidence. A college student named Shirwa Ahmed disappeared about 18 months ago. Last October, he rammed a car full of explosives into a crowd in Somaliland, in the Horn of Africa. Twenty-eight people died in the attack. The bombing was attributed to al-Shabab — the group linked to the missing Minneapolis boys. Ahmed was the first American citizen to become a suicide bomber.
Abdullahe Hussein was a friend of Shirwa Ahmed's. We sat down with him recently at the student center at the University of Minnesota. He was wearing a Yankees baseball cap. He said he learned about his friend's death on the local news last fall. "I got home, turned on the TV and his picture was on there," he said. Hussein can't believe the person who did those things was the person he knew.
Which, of course, is what most of the Somali families in Minneapolis find themselves thinking — the boys who left all seemed so normal. Community leaders searched for an explanation. They suspected two local mosques were involved. One of them was the Dawah Islamic Institute of St. Paul. Videos on the institute's Web site worried them. They appeared to be urging kids to sign up for jihad, to prove they were sufficiently Islamist.
"My life, my death is for Allah," began one of the Internet videos. "Who of us can say that? Who of us? We all can say we're Muslims, but can we say that, that statement right there?"
The FBI hasn't accused the Dawah mosque of any involvement in the disappearances. And, as inflammatory as the rhetoric might be, FBI Assistant Director Philip Mudd said videos aren't enough to actually recruit someone. "The Internet often is a tool that helps someone along a path but not the proximate cause to get someone to buy a ticket to Mogadishu."
To actually get them on a plane to Somalia, recruiters need to talk to the young men face to face and find where they are vulnerable. There was a similar terrorism case that played out near Buffalo, N.Y., in 2002, known as the Lackawanna Six. It was an early effort by al-Qaida to recruit Americans. Peter Ahearn was the special agent in charge there. "They are skilled at their psychological overview of these kids," he said. "They can pick and choose the one they think are more of the followers rather than the leaders."
In Minneapolis, the FBI thinks the recruiters got the young men together to goad each other into action. And, as in the video, they used a classic recruitment ploy: questioning a young man's faith. That's what happened to a boy named Mustafa. His uncle Abdullah Man said someone had clearly started talking to him about his faith and questioning how good a Muslim he really was. "He was talking about some extreme interpretation of the Koran," his uncle said. "He said he'd go back and fight, and the people that believe this stuff, go around and teach kids this belief."
Looking back on it, he says in many ways Mustafa was more Minneapolis than Mogadishu. He didn't even speak the Somali language. But last August he got on a plane to Somalia. The day he disappeared, Mustafa told his mother he was going to do his laundry. No one has seen him since.
Looking at the Somali teenagers roaming the bright orange corridors of the Brian Coyle Center in East Minneapolis, it is easy to see them as vulnerable. There are teenage boys playing foosball ... while others settle into beanbag chairs to play video games on a big screen television. The center is clearly a second home for many of these teenagers. There's homework help in the afternoon, a computer lab and basketball courts for pickup games.
At the entrance to the gym, a young Somali carefully registers the boys on a roll sheet. He smiles, taps his clipboard, and says, "It's an alibi." If kids are accused of being in trouble outside the center, this is supposed to prove they were here.
Abdi Rizak Bihi is one of the Coyle Center directors. He says the boys who went to Somalia were tricked. He said the community has always suspected there was someone brainwashing their kids. "They were highly sophisticated," he said. "I don't believe and none of the families believe that they left willingly. A lot of people say was there a pistol or revolver to their head when they went to the airport? No. There was a bigger gun: Their mind."
Bihi is himself one of the worried relatives; his nephew Burhan vanished in November. When we spoke with him recently at the recreation center he said his nephew was much too naive to orchestrate a trip to Africa on his own. Even before the FBI talked Wednesday about the idea of recruiters, relatives had already assumed as much.
"The biggest shock came when we found out that people were with them at a local ticketing agent," Bihi said. "That was a big shock."
If the kids couldn't pay for the tickets themselves, someone else had to be doing it. The FBI's Mudd told senators on Wednesday how the process might work. "You have a ticket; you have someone at the other end who is a facilitator, someone who is in a general training camp with other folks. Given the vast amount of money, extensive amount of money raised in large diaspora communities here, I personally don't think it would be hard to skim some money and buy plane tickets for tens of people. Terrorism is cheap."
While the FBI inches closer to solving the mystery of how some two dozen young men have simply disappeared, for the parents in Minneapolis, the story is far from over. They want their children back.