RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
On the day the president was inaugurated last week, the FBI had word from overseas of a possible terrorist attack. It was linked to a Somali group officials fear has been recruiting young men from Somali communities in the U.S. In the past year, as many as two dozen of them have disappeared from Minneapolis alone. Federal agents believe these young men are turning up in Somalia, that they are being trained as terrorists, and that one day they may return to this country. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston visited Minneapolis and has this report on what may be a new type of terrorism, along with the story of one boy who disappeared.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Last November on Election Day, 17-year-old Burhan Hassan and six of his friends quietly slipped away from their neighborhood in East Minneapolis, boarded a plane, and headed to Africa.
Mr. ABDIRIZAK BIHI (Somali Youth Center Leader): My nephew is Burhan Hassan.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Abdirizak Bihi runs the youth center where all the local Somali kids go. For more than a year, he heard rumors that boys in the community were going missing, but he didn't believe it. Then his nephew Burhan disappeared.
Mr. BIHI: My sister called me and said Burhan's missing. Then one of the mornings she called me and I was already to sleep. In the morning we talked and she went to his room. Everything he had was gone.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI suspects Burhan and the other boys were recruited by a Somali militia group. The group is called al-Shabab and it's been fighting in Somalia's civil war. Terrorism experts disagree about how closely the group is tied to al-Qaeda. The State Department has al-Shabab on its list of terrorist organizations.
While the threat on Inauguration Day turned out to be a false alarm, the FBI is still concerned the boys could return with their American passports and attack here. That's why the FBI's investigating, questioning parents, and knocking on doors.
I'm standing outside the heart of the Somali community in Minneapolis. It's a cluster of six tall, low-income apartment buildings called Riverside Plaza. Somalis here just call them The Towers. And they could spend their whole lives shuffling through the 20-below winters within just a couple of blocks of here. If I sound cold, it's because I am. You can see young Somali men running from building to building.
A local Mosque is at this storefront next to Palmer's Pub. Its back doors open out onto The Towers, and that's because, the Imam told us, the elders won't need to cross the street to go to prayer. This area in Minneapolis is like a little Mogadishu.
Mr. OMAR JAMAL (Head, Somali Legal Aid Organization): In from the cold.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Nearly all of the young men who disappeared lived in The Towers. Omar Jamal is the head of a local Somali legal aid organization. He took us inside.
Let's take an elevator up, and we'll walk down the corridor.
Mr. JAMAL: Yeah, we can do that.
Mr. JAMAL: This is sixth floor.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The elevator doors open to reveal a hallway that looks 1970s public housing chic, all fluorescent lights and linoleum tile. The floors are gleaming, as if they've just been waxed. Women are gossiping at one end of the hallway. Their sons skip down the corridors. This is where Burhan Hassan grew up. And it's easy to imagine him running up and down hallways just like this one in an apartment complex where he could knock on just about any door and expect to be greeted by a fellow Somali. The children here straddle two worlds.
Mr. JAMAL: Most of those kids are going through identity crisis. They don't know who to belong to. Who are they? Who am I? I'm not American. I am not Somali. I see them as the victims.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The Somalis first started arriving in Minnesota in the early 1990s. That's when the Lutheran Church helped them to escape the war in Somalia. Most didn't speak English. Many were illiterate in their own language. Today, law enforcement officials say there are about 70,000 Somalis in Minnesota, and most of them live in the Twin Cities.
Now, many of the Somali kids, like Burhan Hassan, managed the transition pretty well. They got good grades. They took advanced courses in high school. Burhan was supposed to graduate in May. Burhan's mother was saving up to send him to medical school.
Mr. HUSSEIN SAMATAR (Head, Somalian Community Development Office): He is extremely bright student and very nice towards his mom.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Burhan's other uncle, Hussein Samatar. He runs a development office for the community.
Mr. SAMATAR: He's being the youngest of the family and he had awesome relationship where sometimes just he will call even during the school day. He will take a break and will call his mom and say within four hours every time, class is going well and I will see you soon.
TEMPLE-RASTON: All the young men who left were reared by single mothers, and they were particularly devout. All of them attended two local mosques, one near The Towers and another across the river in St. Paul.
Imam HASSAN MOHAMUD (The Dawah Islamic Institute, St. Paul, Minnesota): Sisters, you can sit there, and brothers (unintelligible).
TEMPLE-RASTON: The Dawah Islamic Institute in St. Paul is one of those mosques. It's in a converted cinderblock storefront in a deserted strip mall. There are rows of plywood shelves to store shoes at the front door. Masking tape marks off lanes on the carpet, so those who come here for prayers can line up in regimental rows. On the evening we arrive, Imam Hassan Mohamud is helping a small group of young men and women memorize the Koran.
(Soundbite of people reciting the Koran)
TEMPLE-RASTON: According to their parents, the missing boys spent a lot of time here. Many spent the night. Dawah's Imam Hassan told us his mosque has nothing to hide.
Imam HASSAN: We're not missing any single student who is connected to the mosque at the Dawah Islamic Center. And that has to be very clear.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Imam Hassan is a small man. He's used henna to dye his beard a bright orange hue. He's joined by the mosque's youth director, an African-American from Queens named Neelain Waled Mohammed. He's a flurry of denials too.
Mr. NEELAIN WALED MOHAMMED (Youth Director, Dawah Islamic Institute): If I was a parent, I'd be coming to the Mosque, where's my youth? They should be at the doors. They should be banging on the doors. We've had nothing like that.
Imam HASSAN: Exactly.
Mr. NEELAIN WALED: I mean if I was a parent, where's my son? You sent him away.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Burhan's Uncle Bihi says he and the other families have gone to the mosque to ask about their sons, but they haven't received any answers. As you might expect, Bihi has relived the last day he saw Burhan a million times, hoping to see some sign or indication of what was about to happen.
Mr. BIHI: His mom tried to pick him up to school - drop him off to school. He said, oh, mom, you know, I'm going to take the train to school. Then she saw him again before he left. And she said, well, the train's gone already and you're late. He said, no, no, my friend so and so - my classmate will pick me up. And that was the last time she saw him.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Burhan's uncle says someone managed to convince the young men that it was their duty as good Muslims, as good Somalis to return to their homeland and fight in its civil war. The FBI believes this might be happening in other American cities as well and has launched investigations in Columbus, Ohio, and Boston. The only word from Burhan came two days after he disappeared. He called his mother.
Mr. BIHI: He said that he's in Somalia. He's fine, well, and he would call when he gets his own cell phone. Then he doesn't call now.
TEMPLE-RASTON: His family is still hoping for the phone to ring. The FBI would like to talk to Burhan too. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.