About two dozen young Somali-American men and teenagers have disappeared from Minneapolis in the past two years. The FBI and community leaders say the young men traveled to Somalia to train with a terrorist group and the concern is that the young men could come back to the U.S. and launch an attack here.
NPR has learned that as many as four of the travelers have come back to the U.S., and NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, who has been reporting on this unfolding story for months, tells Renee Montagne that the men have been seen around the Cedar Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, where the Somali community in the Twin Cities is centered. Sources in the community said it now appears the young men have gone underground.
"It is unclear whether they are under protective custody or whether their parents are keeping them under wraps just to keep them safe," Temple-Raston says. The FBI had been concerned that returnees could slip into the country after training with a terrorist group and use their newfound skills here. Sources said they have interviewed at least two of the young men since their return and they don't believe that these returnees pose a threat.
"They are trying to figure out how these young men ended up getting recruited, what happened once they arrived in Somalia and how they managed to get back," Temple-Raston says. "Because what we understand is that the young men were actually stripped of their passports and money as soon as they arrived in Africa, so it is unclear how any of these guys could come back. Community leaders who have spoken with these young men who have come back say they had a change of heart and they didn't like what they saw when they arrived in Africa. So somehow, they managed to convince the people who brought them there to let them come back home."
Parents in the community say their sons typically called home days after they disappeared to tell them that they were in Somalia fighting in the civil war there. The FBI believes that the young men went to Africa to join the ranks of a militia group in Somalia called al-Shabab, or The Youth. Al-Shabab was put on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations last year.
So far only one of the missing young men, Shirwa Ahmed, has been involved in a terrorist attack. He blew himself up in a suicide bombing in Somaliland late last year. His remains were flown back to Minneapolis in December. Authorities did DNA tests to confirm Ahmed was involved in the attack. The concern at this point is that others who have left Minneapolis will follow his lead, or perhaps import that kind of terrorism here.
The FBI has suspects in the case. A federal grand jury in Minneapolis has convened to take a look at the evidence they have collected. Grand jury proceedings are secret and indictments remain sealed until arrests are made. But sources told NPR that the grand jury has already brought a handful of indictments and more could be added to the current list in the coming days. A grand jury is looking into the disappearance of Somali youth in San Diego and the FBI has opened an investigation in Boston and two inquiries in Ohio.
The FBI's suspicion, Temple-Raston says, is that people in the community recruited and radicalized the young men. "And the question now is whether the people the FBI is focused on are actually part of Al-Shabab or whether they are some sort of freelancers who are just trying to help the civil war effort in Somalia. Or maybe they are a combination of the two."