MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, another historic barrier has fallen in American politics. Michael Steele has become the first African-American to lead the Republican National Committee. He'll be with us in just a moment.
But first, an international mystery in Minneapolis. Minneapolis, Minnesota is home to the largest Somali expatriate community in the U.S. It's also the scene of a mystery. Dozens of young Somali men have disappeared, and there are worries that they've been drawn into a Somali militia group. Their families, their loved ones are wondering why they left, what they're up to, and if they'll ever see them again.
Abdirizak Behi is the director of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center in Minneapolis. He had been helping Somali refugees adjust to life in the U.S., and now he's trying to help the families of the missing, including his own 17-year-old nephew who left with several others in November.
Abdirizak Behi joins us now. Also with us is NPR's national security correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston. She has reported extensively on the story. Welcome to you both. Thank you for speaking with us.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.
Mr. ABDIRIZAK BEHI (Director, Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center, Minneapolis): Thank you.
MARTIN: Dina, I'm just going to ask you to give us the bare outlines of the story. How many young men are believed to be missing and why is the FBI involved?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it's unclear how many young men are actually missing. This is what's even scarier about it. They're between 12 and 20, they think are missing from Minneapolis. There could be some missing from other cities such as Columbus and Boston, as well. It's unclear. A lot of the parents haven't come forward and actually said that their kids are missing. Now, the FBI got involved, naturally, because it started out with local police that people like Mr. Behi told their kids were missing. And then it went to the FBI and became a federal case, and they're investigating.
MARTIN: Was there a - forgive me. Was there the belief that they had been abducted or was it known that they had left but just the circumstances about why were unclear?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the circumstances as to why are still unclear. But when a child calls you from Somalia and says, I'm in Somalia now, and you didn't expect me to leave, that certainly brings up more than just local law enforcement issues.
MARTIN: Mr. Behi, what happened to your nephew Burhan Hassan? When was the last time you talked to him and how did you figure out what had happened?
Mr. BEHI: I talked to him on December 3rd, a day prior to the election. And the last day he was seen by his mom and some other family members was on December 4th. And you know, it's a mystery, but there's no doubt that this kind of things were happening around the world by brainwashing children and stealing them away from their parents and from their loved ones into turmoil.
MARTIN: Why did you say that, brainwashing them? What leads you to believe that?
Mr. BEHI: Because there's no single reason that such a kid who left the camps - in the neighboring camps to Somalia when he was a toddler, that I personally brought him here and grew up here and had a life, a loving family and a good education and was a brilliant student, had dreams of going to Harvard school to become a medical doctor - there is no way in the world that he would in the middle of the day decide to disappear and go into harm's way.
MARTIN: Your sister, his mother, must be sick.
Mr. BEHI: She's extremely in pain.
MARTIN: What about you?
Mr. BEHI: I am. I am. I really got nightmares of bad things happening. And all of us, those families and family members who have children missing, are really going through tough times emotionally and physically because it's not easy when you flee from a civil war, a burning civil war and only hope you kept praying was to wait for your sponsorship that it comes up one day and you go over to United States of America to establish your life and pursue your dreams. And in the middle of that process, when you're about to catch your dreams, that these things happen to you, that your children end up in the same place where you've brought them from. It's really the worst thing in the world.
MARTIN: Dina, as you heard Mr. Behi say, that his nephew was getting good grades, he had plans to go to medical school, that he'd hoped to go to medical school. What do you know - what do we know about some of the other young men who are missing? Is there any common denominator?
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's what's so interesting about this is I've done a lot of work on recruitment and homegrown terrorism from the Lackawanna Six to some of these other cases that we've heard about in the last couple of years. And what's different about this one is that the kids are different. They're as a general rule very good students. They seem to have actually transitioned reasonably well into the American community. They seem to have dreams of a future. All of them were raised or reared by single mothers, interestingly, which gives you an idea that maybe if there was someone who came in and actually brainwashed them in some way or recruited them, it may have been someone who was a male figure that they didn't have in their lives, and they took advantage of that.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with NPR's Dina Temple-Raston and Somali community activist Abdirizak Behi about the young Somali men who have gone missing from their community in Minneapolis. Mr. Behi, what about that? Do you feel that there was - there's some sort of recruiter involved, some sort of...
Mr. BEHI: Definitely, yes.
MARTIN: Charismatic figure who's gotten into these young men's brains, gotten into their heads somehow?
Mr. BEHI: Yes. Definitely, I do. We strongly believe that there are people who have been working on their minds for quite some time. In here, what we do is we don't have a lot of resources for youth. And it will happen is that the youth don't have a lot of things to do after school. So in our community, in our Islamic community, if you have a kid that after school doesn't go on the street but goes to the mosque to do after-school programs and does his spiritual needs there, you become a very proud family. Your kid doesn't get involved into a crime. He enhances his cultural, spiritual and ethnicity education. Then, if you find your kid missing the next morning, definitely there is something wrong wherever he was going to, that there was something happening that was getting into his mind because he was only going to school and to the mosque.
MARTIN: What makes you think, though, that they might be involved in some militia activities?
Mr. BEHI: I'm sorry?
MARTIN: What could gives you reason to believe that these young men might be - have been recruited into a militia?
Mr. BEHI: Yeah. You know, it's clear that some members from this community had their body - his body has been returned here from a suicide bombing in Northern Somalia. It's a fact that we as a community, our information now bridge on a daily basis with back home that we know all these kids being recruited from around the world are being brought for miltia reasons.
MARTIN: And Dina, can I ask you - and it's a delicate question - but are the families of the missing kids cooperating, or are they, as Mister Behi pointed out, a lot of people come from places where there's been a lot of turmoil and sometimes people have reasons to be suspicious of authorities and are just trying to keep their heads down. Are the law enforcement getting cooperation from the family, from the communities?
TEMPLE-RASTON: This is one of the reasons why no one's sure if it's 12 kids or two dozen kids, for exactly that reason, because a lot of the parents have not said anything to the authorities about whether they were missing a son or not. I mean, these aren't runaways. It's clear that these kids are in Somalia. What's unclear is what group they're exactly with. And it seems that they're with a group called al-Shabab, which is this youth militia in Somalia. But no one is positive that's who they're with.
I think that the community also has a lot of internal pressure, too. There have been people within the community who have said to family members, don't talk to the police about this. They'll end up shuttering the mosque. They'll cause problems for the community. Just keep your head down and this will blow over. But as more and more boys went missing - and in many cases, these were boys, I mean, 17-year-old boys - as more and more went missing, I think it was harder and harder for people not to say anything.
And I mean, if you can just imagine what it would be like to wake up and open the door to your son's room and realize that he's not there.
MARTIN: And Mr. Behi, what about that? Are the - what's your message? As a person who - you know, part of your job is to try to be a bridge between families and sort of outside groups and to help people get settled. Do you find a reluctance to turn to law enforcement for help? And what's your message to the community at a time like this?
Mr. BEHI: (Unintelligible) Yeah. In the beginning, when this thing happened and I found out that my nephew was involved, I started to outreach to other families. And as much families as we've found and located, we together we set up a group and we approached the law enforcement immediately. And we have been getting tremendous support from the law enforcement to help us locate our kids and to reassure us.
Also, in the beginning, there were a lot of propaganda from some members of the community that were telling everyone that these kids do not exist, that they don't exist, that is all lies to destroy the mosques in the Islamic community. And we were surprised, very surprised and angry. But as soon as the community found out that this is a true story, that all these children are missing and it's been happening quite some time, the community really have reached out to us, the families, and give us a lot of support. And they also give a lot of information and cooperation with the law enforcement.
MARTIN: Mr. Behi...
Mr. BEHI: But the issue is that for 15 years we're trying to do a community sort of engagement by having the community get involved in local issues, whether it's talking to the law enforcement, whether it's reporting crimes. The notion that to report a crime is in jeopardy because people were being misinformed, they were being told that if they report this crime that they will be in trouble themselves.
MARTIN: I see. Mr. Behi, forgive me. We have to leave it there. My very best wishes to you and your family.
Mr. BEHI: Thank you.
MARTIN: Abdirizak Behi is the director of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center in Minneapolis. He was kind enough to join us on the phone from his home. We were also with Dina Temple-Raston. She's NPR's national security correspondent. She joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you both.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.