FBI Looks For Clues To Missing Somali Youths

Twenty years ago, Somali refugees arrived in America and landed in what might seem like an unlikely place: Minneapolis. Today, the Twin Cities are home to the largest Somali community in America. And it is a community in turmoil.

That's because in the past year and a half, several dozen young men from Minneapolis have boarded planes to Africa and are thought to have joined up with a terrorist group in Somalia.

When Somalis first arrived in Minneapolis in the 1990s, they were fresh from refugee camps, trying to escape a civil war in their own country. The Lutheran Church sponsored the first 1,000 families and sent them to Minnesota.

Hussein Samatar was an early arrival and can't imagine why some of the community's young men have decided to return to Somalia.

"We left that country fleeing from it, so we can't even understand how a child, a 17-year-old can go back and be willing to fight again," he says.

For Samatar, this question is not academic. His own nephew left six months ago.

"We know that he is in Somalia," he says. "I am aware of one very short phone call. He called his mom and said 'I am fine, I am in Somalia, I am not going to tell you where I am at, but I am fine.' That is what we know."

FBI investigators have uncovered a bit more than that. They say there are recruiters for a Somali terrorist group called al-Shabab in the United States.

The Somali communities in Boston, Cleveland, San Diego and Seattle are also missing young Somalis. But nowhere have the numbers been as high as they have been in the Twin Cities — where up to 27 young men have vanished. And that, of course, raises the question: Why here?

The FBI has looked for some answers at a local school: Theodore Roosevelt High School. It's a two-story brick building in the suburbs of Minneapolis nestled in a neighborhood of bungalows on a narrow strip of road.

Inside, the hallways echo with foreign languages, some smatterings of Spanish and French and Somali.

At one point in the late 1990s, Roosevelt had the largest concentration of Somali students in America. One of them was a skinny 15-year-old named Shirwa Ahmed. He left Minneapolis for Somalia in 2007. He blew himself up in a suicide bombing last year. His remains are in an unmarked grave on the outskirts of town.

New Somalis are arriving in Minneapolis all the time, and many begin their high school careers in what is essentially a Somali phonics class. A lot of the new Somali students are illiterate. So they basically sound out Somali words on the board — as first-graders might do in this country. As a result, in many ways, they have become isolated even in their own high school.

Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington, said in a recent speech that the Somali experience is unusual in this country.

"Our Muslim community in the United States tends to be much more integrated, much better off financially, much more engaged in the U.S. political system, much less isolated in pockets than, say, in countries like the United Kingdom," he says. "And that's the good news.'

The bad news is that the isolation of the Somali community has made its members vulnerable to radical ideas.

"We have seen a very, very small percentage who have come to identify with extremists in Somalia, be they al-Shabab or potentially elements of al-Qaida," he says.

And in Minneapolis, that small percentage was convinced to go to Somalia and join the fight there. Parents in the Somali community, for their part, are soul-searching. They wish they had kept a better eye on their kids and, instead of trying to get them to forget about Somalia, warned them about how dangerous it is there. Most of all, they are anxious for the FBI to tell them who is taking their children.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: