One year ago, Burhan Hassan was a junior at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis — taking advanced placement courses and hoping to go to medical school. His family had hoped to celebrate his graduation this week.
Instead, they are investigating why the 17-year-old — one of two dozen young men from the Somali community in the Twin Cities to go missing in the past two years — was found killed under mysterious circumstances in Somalia.
The FBI believes the young men were recruited and radicalized in the U.S. by people linked to a Somali militia called al-Shabab, or "The Youth." Al-Shabab is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations, and it is thought to have ties to al-Qaida. The FBI has been investigating the disappearances for months, trying to track down recruiters and locate the young men.
Hassan's uncle, Abdi Rizak Bihi, says his nephew was killed in Mogadishu because he had decided to leave Somalia. For months, his family had been working quietly behind the scenes to convince him to come back to Minneapolis.
A couple of weeks ago, during a cell phone call to his mother, he reluctantly agreed to leave Somalia and come home.
"Burhan was supposed to meet some relatives and friends in Somalia and then go to Nairobi," Bihi says. "Law enforcement had told us that if any of the kids wanted to come back, they should go to the nearest U.S. embassy. So we were going to take him there."
Had everything gone according to plan, that meeting would have happened this week. An unwelcome phone call arrived instead.
"One of those people who were our contacts in Nairobi called my sister on Friday morning and notified her that Burhan is dead," Bihi says.
He says he thinks his nephew was killed because he could have helped authorities identify the people who recruited him in Minneapolis and even provide information on al-Shabab. Bihi says people who attended his nephew's funeral in Mogadishu saw the young man's body.
"We have confirmed with seven reliable sources that he wasn't in a combat zone and he died from a single gunshot to the head," Bihi says. "He was a key to the investigation here in the United States, and these people wanted to make sure he couldn't provide any information to the authorities here. We think people in Minneapolis ordered his death."
The FBI declined to comment on Bihi's theory beyond saying they are continuing to investigate the disappearances.
Burhan is the second Somali-American from Minneapolis to die in Somalia. The other was Shirwa Ahmed, a suicide bomber who drove a car full of explosives into a crowd last October. His remains were recovered and sent back to Minneapolis earlier this year.
The fact that al-Shabab has set its sights on the Twin Cities to recruit fighters isn't surprising. Minneapolis-St. Paul is home to the largest Somali community in the U.S. — some 70,000 live in Minnesota — and the community is reasonably isolated. Originally, officials believed the young men were going to Somalia out of a sense of nationalistic obligation. Increasingly they have come to the conclusion that the motivation was jihad. Most of the missing young men have not returned.
The concern is whether the young men come back to the U.S. and attack here. The deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Andrew Liepman, spoke about the missing young men earlier this year. He was concerned that al-Shabab is training would-be sleeper cells.
"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," Liepman told a Senate committee in March.
While Bihi is heartbroken that his nephew is dead, he said he was "grateful that it is not worse." He said the family was really worried that Burhan would follow in Shirwa Ahmed's footsteps and end up being used in a suicide bombing.
"We were worried that he would be used to hurt other innocent Somalis, who are suffering already," Bihi said.
Burhan's uncle Bihi has asked the FBI to help him bring his nephew's body home. A Minneapolis grand jury has returned some indictments in the case of the disappearing youth, but they remain under seal, and the investigation continues.