MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now an important terrorism verdict in this country. The case involves what's been called a jihadi pipeline. Five years ago, young Somali-Americans living in Minneapolis started disappearing. They later turned up in Somalia, recruited by a militia with ties to al-Qaida. Yesterday, a jury in Minneapolis found a local man guilty in the case.
And as NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, Somalis in Minneapolis are struggling to understand how a man they thought they knew was behind the scheme that stole their children.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: For three weeks, the benches at the back of a federal courtroom in Minneapolis were filled with Somalis. Women in bright African prints and colorful headscarves sat next to 20-somethings in jeans and purple Minnesota Vikings sweatshirts. And nearly every day in a seat in the back row by the door sat a man named Abdirizak Bihi. His nephew went to Somalia to fight four years ago and he died there. And as Bihi sees it, the defendant, a man named Mahamud Said Omar, played a part in the death of his nephew.
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TEMPLE-RASTON: I first met Abdi Bihi at a rec center in east Minneapolis four years ago, in his office just off the center's basketball court. Bihi's nephew had gone missing just weeks before. The boy's name was Burhan Hasan and he was just 17. It was November 2008, election night, and Burhan told his mother he was going out with his friends. When he didn't come home, the boy's mother began calling around frantically, trying to find him. This is the way his uncle, Bihi, described the disappearance to me four years ago when he still didn't know where Burhan was.
ABDIRIZAK BIHI: My sister called me and said Burhan's missing. Then one in the morning she called me and I was already too sleepy. In the morning we talked and she went to his room. Everything he had was gone.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Burhan wasn't the only one to go missing. Over the course of several years, some two dozen young men would also disappear. The FBI later discovered that a jihadi pipeline was funneling the young men to a terrorist group, a Somali militia linked to al-Qaida. The man convicted yesterday played a key role. He gave the recruits money and introduced them to top leaders of the terrorist group.
And as you listen to the court testimony, Bihi said that the defendant's role was hard to accept - hard for two reasons. First, because Mahamud Said Omar was known in the community as the affable janitor at a local mosque. And second...
BIHI: Because Omar was my neighbor.
TEMPLE-RASTON: His neighbor. Mahamud Said Omar lived on the 23rd floor of a complex in east Minneapolis known as the Towers. Bihi, Burhan's uncle, lived just a couple of floors below. He rode in the elevator with Omar the morning Burhan went missing. Omar even asked how Burhan was doing. There was small talk, and then they parted.
BIHI: And a neighbor who lived in the same building with you that was saying that morning, hi and how are the kids and the family, and asking you - greeting you all these nice ways in the morning, in the elevator, at the same time that he was involved, taking my nephew and other kids.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The other kids first began leaving Minneapolis in late 2007. They left in twos and threes, flying to Amsterdam or Dubai and then connecting to Mogadishu. It took months to discover that they were joining al-Shabab, the group with ties to al-Qaida. It took a couple of years for the FBI to begin zeroing in on the man convicted yesterday. The arrest rocked the community. Burhan's uncle said it would have been easier if it was a stranger.
BIHI: It's not part of our culture where a neighbor is nice to you and saying hi to you and the same things he did probably the last several years, every morning, and coming to find out that that particular morning he was taking your loved ones to the airport to join al-Shabab.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The story of Bihi's nephew ends badly. Burhan Hasan died outside of Mogadishu in June 2009. He apparently was shot on June 5th, the very day he would have graduated from Edison High School in Minneapolis.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.