The Somali-American community in Minneapolis has greeted the news of indictments in a long-running investigation into the disappearance of young Somalis from the city's neighborhoods with a mixture of relief and fear.
The relief comes from a sense that the indictments mean authorities are close to revealing who they believe convinced the young men to leave the United States, go to Somalia and fight alongside members of a terrorist group called al-Shabab. The fear grows out of an uncertainty about who might have been behind it.
"We are scared that the recruiters can be anywhere in our community and we don't know them," said one community leader, Abdirizak Bihi. "The parents are not sleeping. They are on the phone, on the Internet, scanning and monitoring what is happening in Somalia. It has been devastating for the families of the missing kids, and it has been very devastating for the whole community. These kids have been tricked into going to Mogadishu and fighting."
According to the FBI, more than two dozen young Somali-American men have left the Twin Cities in the past two years and joined the ranks of al-Shabab, a Somali militia battling the transitional government. The group is on the U.S. government's list of terrorist organizations, and intelligence officials say it has forged increasingly close ties to al-Qaida. That's part of the reason why some law enforcement officials are calling this case the most significant terrorism investigation in the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The indictments unsealed this week raised almost as many questions as they answered. While the grand jury indicted two men — Abdifatah Isse and Salah Ahmed — it is clear that they are not the main targets in the FBI's investigation. The two men, both Somali-Americans in their 20s, are charged with providing material support to a terrorist organization and conspiracy. Ahmed was also charged with two counts of lying to the FBI.
But the indictment is thin on details about what the two men are actually accused of doing. It is only three pages long and does not discuss anything about the recruitment of young Somali-Americans. The terrorist organization the two men were allegedly helping is never mentioned by name. And what the conspiracy was, exactly, is also never spelled out — although there is a vague reference to a flight one of the two men took from Minneapolis to Somalia.
Government officials tell NPR that this week's indictments are just the first in a series of charges that will come out of Minneapolis in the coming days and weeks. The grand jury is still meeting, and sources tell NPR that there could be as many as six more indictments coming.
What may be most interesting is the way the Somali-American community has reacted to news of the indictments. In terrorism cases like those of the Lackawanna Six or the Fort Dix suspects, the community has typically rushed to the defense of those linked to terrorism. They say the FBI has accused the wrong people, or that they are being scapegoated.
Not this time. The latest indictments have the Somali-American community in Minneapolis virtually punching the air.
"Everybody is talking about it," says Bihi, who has combed the coffee shops around the Cedar-Riverside community where the Somalis gather to gauge public opinion. "I am seeing support for law enforcement. I am seeing support for the indictments, and also I am seeing tremendous support for the families."
Two More Deaths
The unsealing of the indictments came on the heels of a gloomier development. As the fighting has stepped up in Somalia, there came word over the weekend that two more of the young men who had joined al-Shabab from Minneapolis had been killed. Jamal Bana and Zarkaria Maruf were killed during clashes between al-Shabab and government forces in Mogadishu.
Bana's mother first learned her son was dead when she saw photographs of his body on the Internet. Maruf's mother received a phone call from Somalia that said her son had been killed. Then, on Tuesday, both families received e-mails from someone who claimed to be representing al-Shabab. The e-mails said the young men had died as martyrs and good Muslims. The writer told the parents not to be sad because their sons were now in paradise.
Bihi, the community leader, says the latest deaths have been really hard. "Especially for the mom of Jamal Bana," he says. "It is also very devastating for the whole community. Those two deaths are making families who are missing the recruited kids — it is making them less optimistic" that they will return home alive.
Bana and Maruf are the third and fourth youths from Minneapolis to die in Somalia since the recruitment effort began. Last October, a young man named Shirwa Ahmed blew himself up in a suicide bombing. Last month, Bihi's nephew, 17-year-old Burhan Hassan, was killed in Mogadishu.
What is clear is that after nearly a year of waiting for the FBI to capture whoever is behind the recruitment, the community is eager for the agency to move in and make arrests. The concern is that if those arrests don't happen soon, more of their sons will go missing.