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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

For a year and a half now, young Somali-Americans in Minneapolis have been vanishing without warning. In January, we heard about one of the young men from a relative.

Unidentified Man #1: In the morning we talked and she went to his room. Everything he had was gone.

INSKEEP: That was the uncle of Burhan Hassan(ph), one of the boys who is still missing. The suspicion was that young men have been heading to Somalia, and yesterday for the first time the FBI suggested that may be the case.

The bureau believes recruiters are operating in Minnesota and helping young men make their way to the East-African nation. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has the latest.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: The men are believed to have joined the ranks of a Somali terrorist group. It's called al-Shabab. And the disappearances have gotten the attention of American officials. Andrew Liepman is the deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Yesterday, he told a Senate committee what officials are concerned about.

Mr. ANDREW LIEPMAN (National Counterterrorism Center): 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 conduct attacks. They would, in fact, provide al-Qaida with trained extremists inside the United States.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Here's one piece of worrisome evidence. A college student named Shirwa Ahmed disappeared about 18 months ago. Last October he rammed a car full of explosives into a crowd in Somaliland, in the Horn of Africa.

Twenty-eight people died in the attack. The bombing was attributed to al-Shabab, the group linked to the missing Minneapolis boys. Ahmed was the first American citizen to become a suicide bomber.

Abdullahe Hussein was a friend of Shirwa Ahmed. We sat down with him recently at the student center at the University of Minnesota. He was wearing a Yankees baseball cap. He said he'd learned about his friend's death on the local news last fall.

Mr. ABDULLAHE HUSSEIN: I got home and turned on the TV and his picture was on there.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Abdullahe, he says, he can't believe the person who launched that suicide bombing was the person he knew.

Mr. HUSSEIN: I mean, he was one of the nicest people that I met around. He always greeted me when he seen me. He always looked happy.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Which, of course, is what most of the Somali families in Minneapolis find themselves thinking. The boys who left all seemed so normal. Community leaders searched for an explanation.

They suspected two local mosques were involved. One of them was the Dawah Islamic Institute of St. Paul. Videos on the institute's Web site worried them. They appeared to be urging kids to sign up for jihad to prove they were sufficiently Islamist.

(Soundbite of video)

TEMPLE-RASTON: In one of the videos, a young man seems to be preaching.

(Soundbite of video)

TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI hasn't accused the Dawah mosque of any involvement in the disappearances, and as inflammatory as the rhetoric might be, FBI Assistant Director Philip Mudd said videos aren't enough to actually recruit someone.

Mr. PHILIP MUDD (Federal Bureau of Investigation): The Internet often is a tool that helps someone along a path but not the proximate cause that leads someone to get a ticket to Mogadishu.

TEMPLE-RASTON: To actually get them on a plane to Somalia, recruiters need to talk to the young men face to face and find where they're vulnerable. There was a similar terrorism case that played out near Buffalo, New York, in 2002.

It was known as the Lackawanna Six, and it was an early effort by al-Qaida to recruit Americans. Peter Ahearn was the special agent in charge there.

Mr. PETER AHEARN (FBI): They are skilled at their psychological overview of these kids and can pick and choose the ones that they believe are more of the followers rather than the leaders.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In Minneapolis, the FBI thinks the recruiters got the young men together to goad each other into action. And, as in the video we just heard, they used a classic recruitment ploy: questioning a young man's faith.

That's what happened to a boy named Mustafa. His uncle, Abduliman(ph), said someone had clearly started talking to him about his faith and questioning how good a Muslim he really was.

ABDULIMAN (Uncle of Mustafa): He's talking about some kind of extreme interpretations of the Koran, and you know, just say I'm going to fight, and people that believe this stuff go around and teach kids this belief.

TEMPLE-RASTON: He says in many ways Mustafa was more Minneapolis than Mogadishu. He didn't even speak the Somali language. But last August, he got on a plane to Somalia. The day he disappeared, Mustafa told his mother he was going to do his laundry. No one has seen him since.

Looking at the Somali teenagers roaming the bright orange corridors of the Brian Coyle Center in East Minneapolis, it's easy to see them as vulnerable.

(Soundbite of foosball game)

TEMPLE-RASTON: There are teenage boys playing foosball while others are settled into beanbag chairs to play video games on a big-screen television. The center is clearly a second home for many of these teenagers. There's homework help in the afternoon and a computer lab and basketball courts for pickup games.

(Soundbite of basketball game)

TEMPLE-RASTON: At the entrance of the gym, a young Somali carefully registers the boys on a roll sheet. He smiles, taps his clipboard, and says it's an alibi. If kids are accused of being in trouble outside the center, this is supposed to prove they were here.

Abdi Rizak Bihi is one of the Coyle Center directors. He says the boys who went to Somalia were tricked. He said the community has always suspected there was someone brainwashing their kids.

Mr. ABDI RIZAK BIHI (Director, Brian Coyle Center): It's extremely, highly sophisticated. I don't believe and none of us in the community believe, and the families, that they left willingly. A lot of people say: Was there a pistol or revolver on their head to the airport? No, but there was a bigger gun on their mind.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Their mind, he said. Bihi is himself one of the worried relatives; his nephew Burhan vanished in November. When we spoke with him recently at the recreation center, he said his nephew was much too naive to orchestrate a trip to Africa on his own. Even before the FBI talked yesterday about the idea of recruiters, relatives had already assumed as much.

Mr. BIHI: The biggest shock came when we found out that people were with them at a local ticketing agent. That was a big shock.

TEMPLE-RASTON: If the kids couldn't pay for the tickets themselves, someone else had to be doing it. The FBI's Philip Mudd told senators yesterday how the process might work.

Mr. MUDD: You have a ticket; you have someone at the other end who will be a facilitator and then somebody who's in a general training camp with other folks. Given the vast amount of money, vast, extensive amount of money raised in large Diaspora communities here, I personally wouldn't think it would be hard to skim off a little bit of that in various places and fund some plane tickets for tens of people. Terrorism is cheap.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI inches closer to solving the mystery of how some two dozen young men have simply gone missing. But for the parents in Minneapolis, the story is far from over. They want their children back. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Dina's been following this story for quite some time, and you can hear her earlier report about the disappearance of one of the Minneapolis boys at npr.org.

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