NEAL CONAN, Host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Over the past year and a half, about two dozen young Somali-American men disappeared from their homes in Minneapolis with little or no explanation.
Their families fear they've been recruited by a terrorist group back home, suspicions confirmed yesterday by the FBI. At a hearing on Capitol Hill, an FBI official told senators that these young men were radicalized and recruited here in the U.S. and sent to Somalia, where they may end up as cannon fodder or as suicide bombers and that there is some concern that they might return to carry out attacks here in the U.S.
If you're Somali-American, how is this news affecting you and your community? What are people saying where you live? Give us a call. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. E-mail us, firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, the lighters side of "King Lear." Christopher Moore joins us. But first NPR's Dina Temple-Raston joins us from our bureau in New York. She broke this story back in January. And Dina, some of this can seem just a little alarmist until you hear the story of a young man named Shirwa Ahmed.
DINA TEMPLE: Yes, Shirwa Ahmed, who has the dubious distinction of perhaps being the first American citizen to actually become a suicide bomber.
He was - he left Minneapolis about 18 months ago and went to Somalia and signed up with this group called al-Shabab, which means the youth in Arabic, and it's actually on the list of terrorist organizations that the State Department holds.
And he went there in October. It turns out that he actually was driving a car full of explosives and was a suicide bomber in Somaliland.
CONAN: And there's another two dozen or so men who've vanished over that time?
TEMPLE: It's a little unclear how many are really missing, which is one of the interesting parts of this story. Some parents have come forward and said their kids are missing; some parents haven't. So the FBI's been having a lot of trouble putting a real number on this, but about two dozen.
CONAN: And what evidence does the FBI have that these young men are, like this other man, being trained to carry out attacks?
TEMPLE: Well, they don't go that far. What their concern is, that these young men were in Minneapolis and didn't tell their parents where they were going and would disappear and then two days later would call their parents and say, I'm in Somalia, I'm fine.
And they've tracked some of these kids, really, to a large extent. I mean, some are in their 20s, but they're basically teenage boys. They've tracked them to al-Shabab training camps in Somalia.
CONAN: And their fear is that they may end up, these kids, as you put it, for the most part, most of them don't speak the language there. They're going to be very isolated when they get there.
TEMPLE: They are, and they're going to have to band together, and the way they're going to survive is by doing what people who now have them tell them what to do.
You know, it's - apparently as soon as they get there, handlers take them, take away all their passports and their papers, and they put them into a training camp, and then they tell them, well, you've kind of made your bed here and you're going to have to sleep in it. If you go back to the States, they're going to - the threat is that the authorities would send them to Guantanamo. So clearly these kids are scared.
CONAN: And at that point can be talked into doing a lot of things, but how did they get talked into going to Somalia in the first place?
TEMPLE: Well, that's the big question, and that's what the FBI is trying to get to the bottom of now. I mean, there are certain things that - certain themes that keep coming up again and again when it comes to recruiting young men into sort of jihad-y type operations.
And one of the things that keeps coming up is this question of their Muslim faith. Are they really Muslim enough? And they have very charismatic people who come in and say prove your religious piety, and the way to do that is to go beyond just talking about religion but actually doing something.
And they are clearly finding young men who are vulnerable, who need male role models. Ironically, all men who - all the young men who have left were being reared in single-parent homes, from their mothers, and didn't have male role models, and clearly they were able to be convinced that the thing that they needed to do to prove that they were good Somalis and good Muslims was go to Somalia and fight.
CONAN: And we've seen that pattern before but not necessarily in this country. This sounds like some of the recruiting patterns that we saw in Britain a few years ago.
TEMPLE: Well, here's what's interesting about the Somali community in the United States. It's different than other - well, counterterrorism officials look at it differently than they do other immigrant communities here because they tend to be more isolated.
The people in these communities tend to be poorer. In general, they are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. They tend to follow international events much more closely than other immigrant communities.
Of course, these are generalizations, but this is what - the patterns that they're finding. And lastly, they tend not to be involved in the American political process. They don't think that they are a part of it, and because of that, those are sort of these key building blocks that they've seen for radicalization in the U.K. and something we, in the United States, where we said, oh, well, immigrant groups here assimilate so well, we don't have those kinds of problems.
The Somalis here in this country, as a general matter, fit into those categories.
CONAN: Also, their homeland, Somalia, well, as everybody knows, it's been in somewhat of chaos since, well, just about the last 15, 20 years, and there has also been a cause and military occupation of part of the country by Ethiopians in the past few years.
TEMPLE: And a perception that the United States is backing the Ethiopians in this. So there's a bit of a beef with what our policies have been there as a country.
So all those things together, it's sort of a witch's brew that comes together, and when you have a vulnerable young man and someone who is charismatic and gets their focus, what you get is somewhat like what we've seen, two dozen young men who suddenly disappear.
CONAN: And al-Shabab, this group that's, well, now controls substantial parts of Somalia, few of us had heard about it until there was a terrorist warning on inauguration day.
TEMPLE: Exactly. I mean, the last group of young men who left Minneapolis left on election day, and on inauguration day there was a tip that the counterterrorism authorities got that essentially said that they were concerned that several of the young men who had left in the past had actually returned and were planning some sort of operation.
Now, as it turns out, this was a completely unsubstantiated tip. It turned out that one of their sources was angry at a particular man and had fingered him and he was a Somali, and it all sort of (unintelligible) that way. But clearly this shows the level of concern that counterterrorism officials in this country have when it comes to this particular problem.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners in on the conversation. Our guest, of course, is Dina Temple-Raston, NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, with us from our bureau in New York.
800-989-8255. We'd like to speak with Somali-American listeners today, or send us an e-mail, email@example.com. And Musamil(ph), I hope I'm not mispronouncing that too badly, joins us from Minneapolis.
MUSAMIL: Yes, sir.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
MUSAMIL: I have - I want to make a comment that is affecting me or my community, Somali community, because we are really not terrorists, or I can say as much as I know, because we are a refugee people who came here to settle down and, you know, to get a life and do just work and hard work, and (unintelligible) American dream.
And then there are maybe some few people who want to ruin that, and as a community it's going to affect us, not only us but our children and our, you know, grandchildren, and we really need to do something about it as a community if we are Somali, and we really need help from the government too.
But they can't just say we are all terrorists or, you know, I mean, that's not right.
CONAN: The government I don't think has said you're all terrorists, but I wonder, are people looking at you a little differently today than they might have been yesterday?
MUSAMIL: Yes, because whenever you hear Somali community, ask me personally if I behave like a Muslim person or, you know, trying to be just a regular Muslim, people are going to take a second look at you.
Oh, there he is, and maybe he looks like the one who, he looks like the guy who was on the TV that they show, you know, and especially if you have a beard, you know, if you just seem to be a Muslim. So they would take a second look, and you know, co-workers may say, oh okay, oh, maybe Somalis are like that, or if you are (unintelligible) they say okay, let us take a second look at this guy. You know...
CONAN: Okay, Dina Temple-Raston, you spent some time in Minneapolis, in this community, reporting on them. Is Musamil's description of that right - mostly a hard-working, poor area?
TEMPLE: Absolutely, and I think that the FBI and other law- enforcement organizations have gone to great pains to say that this is a tiny fraction. I mean, think about how big the Minneapolis Somali community is. It's anywhere between 40,000 and 70,000 people, and you've got two dozen young men, around, about, around that number who have actually left.
So clearly that's this tiny little sliver of the community. But what's interesting here is that the fear is actually on many levels, right? The first level is just put yourself in the shoes of these parents, who in one case, and this is in the story we did this morning, there was this young boy named Mustafa(ph) who said to his mother, I'm going to go do my laundry. I'll be right back.
And that's the last time she saw him. So imagine being a parent and how fearful you are that your child might disappear. And then the second level is, for those of us who are outside the Minneapolis area or outside one of these communities, you know, what does it mean if these kids come back?
Are they going to come back as terrorists, or are they going to come back feeling that they just escaped a Somali civil war with their lives, and they feel lucky to do that?
CONAN: Musamil, thanks very much for the call.
MUSAMIL: All right, thanks so much.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go quickly to Yasmine(ph), Yasmine also calling from Minneapolis. Yasmine, are you there?
CONAN: Yes, you're on the air.
YASMINE: Yeah, hi. I'm calling, actually, from Boston, Massachusetts.
CONAN: Okay, go ahead, please.
YASMINE: Yeah, hi. I'm sorry my fellow Somalian who just said that because we're Muslim, and people are labeling us as a terrorist, and that's not true. I don't agree with him, but the only thing I could say to Somalian people in Minneapolis, I could just request that the families to do some outreach and search, I mean, seek some help from the authority or whoever can help them and to stop their kids to traveling overseas without their permission. That's all I can say. Thank you very much.
CONAN: Okay, Yasmine. Thank you very much for the call. We're talking about the disappearance of roughly two dozen Somali-American young men from the streets of Minneapolis who are believed, many of them, at least, to be in Somalia working with what the State Department and others describe as a terrorist organization.
Our guest is Dina Temple-Raston, NPR's counterterrorism correspondent. When we come back, we'll also be joined by the manager of a youth program at a community center in Minneapolis who's worked with some of these kids.
Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The news that young men are being recruited off the streets of Minneapolis to fight for a terrorist organization in Somalia troubles the FBI. It also troubles many of the Somali-American communities here in the United States, and of course it mostly troubles the parents of these young men.
W: 800- 989-8255. E-mail us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Dina Temple-Raston is with us. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent is at our bureau in New York. And joining us now is Abdirahman Mukhtar. He's the manager of the youth program at the Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis. He testified yesterday before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, and he joins us today from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Nice to have you on the program with us today.
ABDIRAHMAN MUKHTAR: Thank you, Neal, my pleasure.
CONAN: And we spoke earlier about a young man named Shirwa Ahmed, the man who blew himself and 30 others up in a suicide bomb. You knew him. Tell us about him.
MUKHTAR: Actually, I went to high school with Shirwa Ahmed, but he graduated a year ahead of me. So the only time I found out what happened to Shirwa is when the media reported and the FBI reported that Shirwa was the first American citizen to commit suicide.
CONAN: In a suicide bombing overseas. As you heard that news, I guess you didn't know him all that well, but how did it make you feel? Did you believe it?
MUKHTAR: Not really. A lot of the Somali community definitely believed that (unintelligible) - it was really sad news, and we were really shocked about what happened, and I mean, we're still actually shocked about that because - that's against the Somali culture and also, you know, our religion, Islam.
CONAN: As other men then disappeared, young men and older boys, as they disappeared, there must have been alarm spreading, well, through your community center. Some of those kids must have gone through there at some point.
MUKHTAR: I mean, the whole community's shocked about the news of young people that are missing, and these young people are not, you know, troublemakers. They were very bright young people who were in college, high schools and universities.
So the community, actually, yeah. You know, this issue concerns the community, especially I work with young people, so - and this is what I do for a living. So I'm really concerned this issue a lot.
CONAN: And again, this is just a small number out of a pretty large community, but nevertheless, and if somebody is recruiting them, do you believe that, that there's somebody there in Minneapolis helping them on their way?
MUKHTAR: I mean, I don't have expressed concerns about the potential trade of terrorist recruiters, you know, working in Minneapolis, but to my knowledge, you know, I haven't come across any recruiters.
You know, rumors exist, and whether they are true or false, I personally - the only recruiters that I had or I know in my line of work, gang recruiters, which is a lot of problem for the community in the area.
CONAN: Something else entirely. Nevertheless, this is a tight-knit community. You may now know who these people are, but somebody must know who they are.
MUKHTAR: Definitely. I mean, this is a problem of all, but from my experience, you know, the Internet plays a big role in this issue, and the Homeland Security, the Committee of Homeland Security and Government Affairs actually had a report on May 8, 2008 about the Internet and the role it plays in recruitment of, you know, potential terrorists.
CONAN: Yet that's - the Internet is not going to hand somebody a plane ticket and give them a ticket to Somalia.
MUKHTAR: Yeah, I agree with you that. But to my knowledge, I don't know anyone who's recruiting these, and I am the first person who wants to know who's doing this so I can be aware of this.
CONAN: Is this - and we've heard Dina Temple-Raston tell us that it's not, but are there a lot of Islamic jihadists amongst the Somali community in Minneapolis?
MUKHTAR: Not really. People misunderstand the Somali community. The Somali community is a peace-loving community; actually they came to Minnesota and America or the Diaspora because they want a safe place.
They fled from a civil war and chaos and local terrorists back home. So these people are hard-working people that are trying to make ends meet every day. So - but even if there's such people, it would be a very, very small number, and I don't know anyone who actually is in that situation.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail question from Karen(ph) in Sacramento. How did so many Somalis end up in Minneapolis, USA, in the first place? Just wondering. Was a group trying to help refugees or what? Dina Temple- Raston, can you help us out there?
TEMPLE: Yeah, they first started arriving in Minneapolis in great numbers in the early '90s. The Lutheran Church had basically sponsored a lot of the Somali - the first Somali families who were refugees from the war, to come and live in Minneapolis, and I think it was like the first 1,000 families or something like that were sponsored by the Lutheran church, and then after that, you know, more and more people came.
CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line, and this Mohammed(ph), Mohammed calling us from Dayton in Ohio.
MOHAMMED: Hi, how are you doing?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
MOHAMMED: Good. My comment's quite short. I mean, there's an issue going on with the Somali community in Minneapolis. I am a Somali-American myself. I think it's - every immigrant community in America goes through it at one point, where the call to home is very strong, and you have to be able to, you know, face the realities of what's somewhere else versus right here at home.
I mean, point blank, the Somali community in America and any other immigrant community group in America has gone through this and is going through this consistently.
These poor young Somali people who are being, you know, brainwashed into going to Somalia right now to do things that are illegal based upon their religion and their culture, and there is no justification for it, but it is understandable, and it has to be a concise understanding of what is real and what is beyond people's control.
CONAN: And you make a good point, Mohammed, and I think people ought to remember that. In the community I grew up in, Irish-American, there were a few who raised money and ran guns to the IRA.
MOHAMMED: Absolutely, absolutely, same story. Thank you.
CONAN: Okay, Mohammed, thanks very much. And the call to home, let me ask you about that, Abdirahman Mukhtar. This is something that is very powerful.
MUKHTAR: Yeah, the call to home, I mean, but the young people that left or we are now saying that they left from America to Somalia, most of them have never seen Somalia, or they were a very young age when they left.
You know, I left in Somalia, 1991, and that's a long time. I never went back since then. So they only know that their ethnicity is Somali and they came from Somalia, their parents came from Somalia, but these kids are Americans. Everything they do, they do it the American way.
So even though they happen to be Somalis, you know, that's where the identity crisis comes in. These kids consider themselves Americans, but we still label them as, you know, Somalis.
CONAN: There in the youth center, listening to Dina's report that we heard this morning and in other pieces, it's described as, you know, kids playing foosball, kids hanging out, playing basketball, that sort of thing.
What do the kids talk about? Are they talking about religion, or are they talking about sports? What do they talk about?
MUKHTAR: I said this yesterday. Most of these young people - actually, right now they are interested in the March Madness sports.
CONAN: The NCAA tournament.
MUKHTAR: The NCAA tournament. They talk about, you know, who has the most friends in their MySpace accounts. Things they talk about is the NFL draft and those things. But I don't see them talking about the Somali political issues, you know, and this issue that we are talking about now, even though they are concerned about people labeling them as, you know, homegrown terrorists. But in fact they are an average America youth.
CONAN: Let's get Virginia on the line. Virginia with us from Birmingham, Alabama.
VIRGINIA: Hi. How are you? Thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.
VIRGINIA: What age of kids are we talking about? And when my child flies, she has to jump through a lot of hoops to get a ticket and get on the plane, you know, especially by herself. So what kind of kids are they? I mean, are they really kids?
CONAN: Dina Temple-Raston?
TEMPLE: We're talking about 15, 16, 17-year-olds. But what was going on here is that someone posing as their parent went to the ticketing office and got the tickets for them. And then in one case, when this last group left - they left on election night, right - and all of the Somali community in Minneapolis, or a great deal of it, was out on the streets celebrating the Obama victory. And his mother simply thought he was out late celebrating this victory. And then she went into his room in the morning and his computer was gone and his passport was gone and he realized that he was gone.
CONAN: Do authorities know who bought those tickets?
TEMPLE: It's unclear about that. I think that they have some idea of what might be going on there, but I don't think that they know exactly who bought the tickets.
I think what's interesting here, too, that we should point out is that there are very few places for youth in the Somali community in Minneapolis to go. Essentially, they go to two different places. They go to the Brian Coyle Youth Center, which is just packed to the gills with young men playing these games and playing basketball and doing homework and all those other things. It looks like your typical sort of YMCA. And then the only other option they have really is the mosque. And you have parents who are working two and three jobs, so they're not around, so they sort of depend on either the Brian Coyle Center or the mosque to basically run roughshod over their kids or make sure that their kids are okay. Then the third option is, of course, then joining a gang.
So you can imagine, as a parent, if your child is spending a lot of time in the mosque up until this episode happened, you were relieved because at least he wasn't in a gang.
VIRGINIA: Sure, yeah.
CONAN: Yeah. Thanks very much, Virginia.
VIRGINIA: Sure, thanks.
CONAN: Abdirahman Mukhtar, is that an accurate description of the situation that the kids face there?
MUKHTAR: In somewhat it's actually accurate. She did a great job. Because these young people don't have enough resources. As she mentioned, that at Brian Coyle, you know, we service - let me give you an example of - Brian Coyle is actually - locates in the (unintelligible) neighborhood where I live and work. The median household income is just 14,367 a year. The unemployment rate is 17 percent; that's according to 2000 census. You can imagine that. Now it's much worse than that.
So across the street, that's where Brian Coyle Center locates this apartment complex which is 3,500 residents. Ninety-two percent of them are immigrants, and 1,190 are under the age of 18.
CONAN: Wow. So...
CONAN: A whole lot of young people.
MUKHTAR: Yes. And they don't have enough resources, culturally appropriate resources. Even at Brian Coyle, we don't have enough resources to keep them busy.
CONAN: We're talking with Abdirahman Mukhtar, the manager of the youth program at the Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis. Also with us, NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And Abdasalam(ph) joins us on the line. He's calling from Minneapolis.
ABDASALAM: Hi, thank you for taking my call.
I'm a director of a mosque in Minneapolis. And up to this point there is no direct link of any mosque to any of the youth leaving, although there's a lot of finger-pointing. And so what I want to emphasize is the mosque the center for spirituality and respite for the community. And it does offer many services like education, counseling, youth leadership, social services. And the message we instill in the youth is to be American Muslims and to think long that they're here to stay. The option of going to Somalia is minimal because of the long time the civil war has been going on.
And so I think it's unfair that the mosques have been criticized and made to look bad in the eyes of the society. So I would say people should hold judgment, wait for investigation and not break the trust between the mosque and the families. And what is a concern as mosque leaders is to bring a stop to this and to bring to the justice whoever might be behind these issues.
And so - and my last word is to - a point to the authorities that even in Somalia there is a change in the political situation if a unity government has taken place, and the community overwhelmingly supports that process.
CONAN: And the Ethiopians have left as well.
ABDASALAM: And the Ethiopians have left. So even that is changing - the situation on the ground is changing and the best way to take the appeal of the extremists is through this nation-building and process of peace.
CONAN: Well, let me ask Dina...
ABDASALAM: I would really advise that unilateral action and military intervention should never be thought of, because that's what the extremist side wants.
CONAN: Not the subject of this program, but we take your point. Dina Temple-Raston, is the FBI looking at mosques in Minneapolis?
TEMPLE: Well, it's interesting, I think in general when we think of jihadi recruitment, we on the outside are always looking and saying it must be the mosque. They must be finding people in the mosque. And in fact what in general has happened is counterterrorism officials don't worry about the young men who are talking in the mosque. When they start to focus on young men, the young men that they think are the ones who might be targeted for recruiting, they are the ones who actually peel themselves off from the mosque and start to meet privately.
This is what happened, for example, in the Lackawanna Six case, which was our first homegrown terrorism case here in the United States, in which six young men had attended an al-Qaida camp in 2001 shortly before the September 11th attack.
CONAN: That was up in Buffalo, New York. And you wrote a book about that.
TEMPLE: Indeed. So - and in that case, you know, you - what happened is there was some fiery talk in the mosque, and the mosque elders said, look, we don't permit that kind of political fiery talk here. So what happened is this group actually removed themselves from the mosque and began to meet privately. And this is - according to people who look at the radicalization process, this is one of the first steps in radicalization. They find the right kind of kids and then they basically pull them out of the mosque.
CONAN: Let's get one last caller in. This is Karene(ph). Karene with us from Portland, Oregon.
KARENE: Yeah, hi. Pretty much what I want to say is that there's a cultural divide between the parents and the kids. I mean, I'm Somali and I live here in Portland, and I see this all the time with these kids, you know, getting into trouble, a lot of these Somali youth kids. The problem is a lot of the parents come here as single parents, especially the moms, and they don't speak English, and then the kids just go - they go out and, you know, they cause problems and there's the English and a cultural gap. And I think a lot of that problem comes from there as well.
CONAN: And this cultural gap, I think every immigrant community has experienced this, Karene.
KARENE: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Exactly. So, but the thing is...
CONAN: Well, I think Karene's cell phone ran out. And we - but we thank him for his call. And just as well, because we're just about out of time anyway. Abdirahman Mukhtar, thank you so much for being with us today.
MUKHTAR: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: Abdirahman Mukhtar is the manger of the youth program at the Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis. He joins us today from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.
Our thanks as well to NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, Dina-Temple- Raston, who's with us from our bureau in New York. Dina, as always, pleasure.
TEMPLE: My pleasure too.
CONAN: Coming up, it's kind of like "King Lear" but with lots of shagging and bonking. Shakespeare's greatest tragedy retold as a comedy. Christopher Moore on this latest book, "Fool." Stay with us.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION coming up after the news.
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