Mystery Brews In Minn. As Somali Teens Go Missing An international mystery is brewing in Minneapolis, where America's largest population of Somali expatriates live in a neighborhood known as "Little Mogadishu." Dozens of Somali teens and young adults have recently gone missing. Some suspect they have gravitated to war-torn Somalia, toward the pull of the jihadist group, al-Shabab.
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Mystery Brews In Minn. As Somali Teens Go Missing

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Mystery Brews In Minn. As Somali Teens Go Missing

Mystery Brews In Minn. As Somali Teens Go Missing

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TONY COX, host:

From NPR News, this is News & Notes. I'm Tony Cox. On the eastern side of Minneapolis sits a neighborhood called Little Mogadishu. Since the 1990s, America's largest population of Somali expats have lived there in a cluster of high-rise apartments. But recently, Little Mogadishu has become part of an international mystery. Dozens of young men have suddenly left their homes and families behind for Somalia, where some say they have joined with Islamist terrorist groups. For more on the story now, we have Dina Temple-Raston, NPR's national security correspondent. She has been following the story. Dina, nice to have you on.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Thanks, it's great to be here.

COX: So, let's talk about when these boys, these young men actually first went missing, how many of them and what they're doing?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, you know, this is where the mystery starts. All of this is a little bit unclear. I mean, authorities think it's been going on for a little bit over a year. And the latest disappearance has happened on Election Day. And that's when this 17-year-old boy named Burhan Hassan and six of his friends climbed on an airplane and flew to Africa. And they called their mothers two days later to say, Hey, mom, we're fine. Don't worry but here we're here in Somalia. All told, they think they're somewhere between a dozen and 20 kids who - and I say kids because they're like 15,16,17 some are 20, you know, a little bit older, but between 12 and 20 kids have disappeared.

COX: What do these missing men have in common besides their gender and their ethnicity?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Interestingly, you know, when young men do leave for these sorts of jihad missions or religious missions, very often they seem to be down on their luck. And what's different about these young men is that nearly all of them were A students, they were college- bound. They all lived in this area of Little Mogadishu which are these sort of six apartment towers in the Cedar-Riverside section of east Minneapolis. And they were all interestingly brought up by single moms and all seem to attend the same mosque or sort of Islamic institute, either right close to where they lived or in St. Paul.

COX: Now, there was a Somali bombing, a suicide bombing last October. And I believe that it was believed that one of these young men was involved. First of all, is that true? And secondly, is there something that the government, the U.S. government can and is trying to do about this?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, let me just give you the details of that particular event. It happened on October 29th and it was in Somaliland, as opposed to Somalia proper. And the young suicide bomber was a young man who'd been missing from Minneapolis for a little over a year. His name was Shirwa Ahmed. And after the suicide bombing occurred and there was a second one that occurred around the same time in Somaliland, they took - the U.S. authorities went there, took a DNA test and actually confirmed that it was Shirwa Ahmed. He was brought back to Minneapolis and, I think, was buried in December.

COX: Now, you've done some extensive reporting there in Minneapolis. What is your sense of how the Somali community is reacting to these disappearances?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, just - if you were to imagine yourself, to put yourself in their shoes, let's just take away the Somali part of it, just any community, imagine suddenly having all these boys just disappear. And the stories of how they disappeared are chilling for anybody who's a parent. You know, one boy said he was going to go and do his laundry. And then two days later, his mother gets a phone call that says he's in Somalia. Burhan Hassan was supposed to be taking a ride from a friend to school. And his mother checks his room after Election Day, because he hasn't come back and she doesn't know where he is and she realizes he's cleared out his room. So, just from a basic sort of parenting point of view, you can imagine how frightening it would be. Then, later on top of that, that you are from Somalia, you don't want to cause trouble. And many of these cases, the women don't speak English very well. And you've got a really, really frightened community and a frightening situation.

COX: I would imagine that there is - well, let me put it to you, what the government can do. You mentioned the case of the youngster who was brought back and buried in Minneapolis. But is there a role for the United States government to play in this?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Oh, absolutely. I mean, this is a federal case. It's no longer local law enforcement. I mean, these kids, one way or another, either they went willingly or unwillingly to Somalia. And, of course, the concern is that they might come back and come back angry at the United States, and this is why the FBI got involved.

COX: What I'm not clear on is if they left voluntarily, what law that would have broken?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, if they left voluntarily and actually joined al-Shabab, which is known as The Youth, which is a militia wing in Somalia, the State Department has actually said that this group is a terrorist organization. So, just by going there and training with them, you would break material support laws.

COX: Now that people know more about them, do you suspect that the numbers of young men going is going to be reduced?

TEMPLE-RASTON: I don't know. I mean, things are happening on the ground in Somalia that have, in fact, attracted a lot of young men from around the world. It's not just in Minneapolis, either. They're looking at other cities where this might have taken place. I mean, Ethiopia is now pulling out of Somalia. And you could see that this doesn't necessarily have to be a religious quest. This could be a nationalistic quest by a young man who wants to go and help his country. So, I don't want to jump to any conclusions as to whether or not this is going to slow down simply because it's received some attention.

COX: Dina, thank you very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

COX: Dina Temple-Raston is NPR's national security correspondent. She joined us from the NPR Studios in New York City. Now we are turning to Omar Jamal. He is the director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, which is closely tied with the Somali community in Minneapolis. Omar, welcome.

Mr. OMAR JAMAL (Director, Somali Justice Advocacy Center): Thank you, Tony.

COX: So, we just got through hearing Dina's report. Talk a little bit about the atmosphere and how you've noticed that it's changed in Little Mogadishu since these disappearances began.

Mr. JAMAL: Well, some of these disappearances has been reported by the parents of those kids. The community became very tense, very fearful. There has been lots of FBI interrogation going on about who purchased them the ticket. Who was behind these kids? Who got into their mind? Have they left voluntarily? Is it religious cause or is it nationalistic cause, at a time of their leaving Ethiopia or in the country. So, I think it's been really very, very, very tense and very anxiety among the community and mosques in the city of Minneapolis.

COX: Do you know the people whose sons have gone missing personally?

Mr. JAMAL: I do know them, or they came to us and we met with them. I talked to them. And it looks like from what we gather, their discussion, is that those kids didn't work, they didn't have any money. It's very obvious that somebody has misled them and some have gotten into their mind by believing them if you go there to and joined Al Shabab and, of course, the bad news is one of them has already carried out a suicide bombing whose remains have already been brought back to Minneapolis. And by the way, I attended the funeral of Mr. Shiraw Ahmed. So, this, in general, is very sad, and we think these are victims, young kids. To me, the question that is often asked is what did it take to convince someone whose attending a college or university to drop everything they are doing and to go back to a country from which their parents has fled because of security reason. If they fled some other to refugee camps and they did all the way there to come here to put their lives back together, and it must be something very powerful.

COX: What if - give us a sense of the Somali population in Minnesota. How large is it? And give us a little of the history of how and why they settled there.

Mr. JAMAL: Well, the number is very conflicting. The Somali community in the state of Minnesota is between 40,000 to 60,000 scattered all over the state, mostly concentrated in the Twin Cities, cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. They have been coming here for the last 10 to 15 years because of the collapse of the regime in Somalia and disintegration of the state. You have lots of influx of immigrants running from the country into refugee camps in adjacent country like Kenya and Ethiopia. And Lutheran churches and the Catholic churches started sponsoring those immigrants, and if anyone gets sponsored if given the choice, which state they - he or she would like to go, chances are they already know somebody in Minneapolis, and they will say, I'm going to Minneapolis, and because of that, the number has increased.

COX: Now, Dina Temple-Raston told us that a number of these families have heard, maybe just one time from these young men who say, I'm here, I'm OK, and then they don't hear from them again. My question is, are there young men who have gone, who have for whatever reason perhaps changed their minds and wanted to return but were unable to and are reaching out back here to the states to try to get someone to help them bring them back.

Mr. JAMAL: That's a very good question. We really don't know. This, what I call the recruitment, has been going on longer than anybody might expect. Actually, I believe I know someone who has gone to Somalia to join the militants - Islamic militants two years ago. Some of them has already been killed in the fighting. It just came on the service when the parents came out complaining about the missing kids. And once they go there, they get caught up in this euphoria of jihadism, in this feeling of accomplishing something bigger than themselves, something godly. And if by any chance anyone of them changes his mind, we don't know how those close to him will react. Will he be considered a traitor? What will happen to him? We have no clue. So, this is a very unknown thing that we can go and talk about, but we know the facts that they gone back, some of them called from Somalia telling their parents that not to worry and I will see you in heaven. That's not normal conversations. Nobody calls somebody and tells them they will see them in heaven. So, it raises the concern.

COX: Our time is short. Really briefly, I'll ask you to give me just a one-word answer on this. Do you think that now that there is a light shone on this topic that young people in Minneapolis will not be going, as many?

Mr. JAMAL: It may not be as many as they used to, but we don't know. I hope this will stop from them leaving. This is...

COX: All right, Omar. Thank you. I've got to stop you unfortunately because our time is short. I appreciate your coming on with us. Omar Jamal is the director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center. He spoke to us from the studios of American Public Media in St. Paul.

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