NPR logo FBI Searches Midwest Businesses With Somali Links

FBI Searches Midwest Businesses With Somali Links

Federal agents served warrants on a handful of money transfer businesses around Minneapolis and eastern Missouri last week. People close to the investigation said the searches were related to the disappearance of about two dozen young Somali-American men and teenagers from the Twin Cities in the past two years.

The Somali community in Minneapolis is the largest in America. Some 70,000 Somalis have settled in Minnesota after they were sponsored by the Lutheran Church in the 1990s. To send cash to their impoverished relatives back home, Somalis typically use money transfer businesses. The FBI fanned out last week to a number of those operations, trying to follow a money trail that might give them an idea of who is behind the disappearance of the young men.

Somali families in the Minneapolis area approached the FBI last year to report numerous instances in which their sons simply vanished one day and emerged in Somalia the next. Typically, the boys disappear and then parents receive phone calls from the young men in Somalia, telling them not to worry.

FBI Director Robert Mueller said in a recent speech to the Council on Foreign Relations that the bureau believes the young men were radicalized and recruited in this country and went to join forces with a group called al-Shabab. Al-Shabab is a Somali militia that was put on the State Department's list of terrorist groups last year. It has been fighting in a civil war in Somalia and has some links to al-Qaida — although it is unclear how strong those ties really are.

One of the first young men thought to have left Minneapolis to train with al-Shabab was Shirwa Ahmed. He left the Twin Cities more than 18 months ago. In October of last year he blew himself up in a suicide bombing operation in Puntland. The FBI identified his remains through DNA testing and brought him back to the United States for burial in December. The concern is that some of the other missing young men might follow in his footsteps or bring their training back to the United States and attack.

The Somali community in the Twin Cities has been on tenterhooks for weeks. Parents are scared to allow their children to go out after school out of concern that they, too, might mysteriously end up in Somalia. So far, no arrests have been made in the case.