A grand jury in Minneapolis has indicted two men on charges of providing material support to a terrorist organization. These are the first indictments to be unsealed in a broader case involving the disappearance of more than two dozen Somali-Americans from Minnesota over the past two years.
Court papers show that the grand jury indicted Abdifatah Yusuf Isse and Salah Osman Ahmed on one count each of providing material support to terrorists and conspiracy to fight overseas. Ahmed was also indicted on two counts of making false statements related to international terrorism to federal authorities. Both men are in custody.
According to the indictment, from September 2007 to December 2008, the defendants conspired with others "known and unknown to the grand jury" to "kill, kidnap, maim and injure persons outside the United States."
These are the first indictments in a broader case that law enforcement officials have called the most significant domestic terrorism investigation since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. This first indictment is only three pages long, and while it is vague, it is clearly part of a sweeping investigation the Minneapolis FBI has been conducting over the past year into young Somali-Americans who have been disappearing and then showing up in Somalia as part of a militia called al-Shabab. Al-Shabab is on the U.S. government's list of terrorist organizations.
While most of the missing young men have come from Minneapolis, the FBI has been investigating similar cases in San Diego, Boston and Cleveland, among other cities.
Recruits For War
The young men first began arriving in Somalia as al-Shabab was fighting Ethiopian troops who had invaded Somalia to crush the Islamic Courts Union. The group's pitch to the young men was that they had to save their homeland from invaders. As the Ethiopians withdrew, al-Shabab began concentrating its efforts on toppling the transitional government in Somalia — telling the young men that they needed to help install an Islamic republic in Somalia.
Al-Shabab is thought to have links to al-Qaida, so helping the group in any way is considered to be "providing material support" to a terrorist organization, which is against the law. It is unclear whether the young men who traveled to Somalia from the U.S. knew what they were getting into.
U.S. officials are concerned that the young men who train with al-Shabab will come back to the U.S. and perhaps launch an attack here. Several of the men have returned and are thought to be in protective custody.
Those who stayed in Somalia are in the middle of a bloody civil war. At least four Minneapolis-area recruits may have died in Somalia. The first, Shirwa Ahmed, blew himself up in a suicide bombing last October. Burhan Hassan, a 17-year-old high school student, was killed last month. And over the weekend, two more Minneapolis Somalis, Jamal Bana and Zarkaria Maruf, were thought to have been killed in the fighting.
Bana's mother saw a photograph of her dead son on the Internet. Maruf's relatives said they received a phone call from Somalia reporting that their son had been killed, but there has been no independent confirmation of his death. Parents of missing youths have received similar phone calls in the past only to hear later that their sons are alive.
Even so, news of the latest deaths has shaken the Somali community in the Twin Cities. The community has called on the FBI to find the people who reportedly recruited their sons, radicalized them in Minneapolis, and then convinced them to go to Somalia to fight. Certainly the latest indictments are part of that process.
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, however, they have concluded that the motivation was jihad. Most of the missing young men have not returned.
The grand jury is expected to unseal additional indictments in the case in the coming weeks.