KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Officials say about 150 Americans have traveled to Syria during that country's civil war. Of those, only about two dozen have joined ISIS. This week, the White House is holding a conference to figure out how to stop people from joining groups like ISIS. One city that's getting a lot of attention at the conference is Minneapolis. That's because Somali Americans there were targeted by terrorist recruiters in the past, and now it's happening again. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports from Minneapolis.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Kids are running up and down the halls at the Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis. That's where Abdi Rizak Bihi has an office. He's in charge of Somali education with a local advocacy group and has become an unintentional expert on radicalization and terrorist recruitment. That's because his nephew, Burhan Hassan, left Minneapolis in 2008 and joined a terrorist group called al-Shabab.
ABDI RIZAK BIHI: After our kids left, we looked back. And one of the things three - four months prior to their departure - kids totally get disconnected from their friends, from their activities, from everything they were doing.
TEMPLE-RASTON: His nephew was one of 27 Somali Americans from this community who ended up in Somalia. He died there several years ago, and officials believe some of the young men who years ago went to Somalia to fight are contacting their friends and relatives in Minnesota and encouraging them to join ISIS.
BIHI: I know one guy who tweets the community all the time. Yes.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Who is where - in Somalia?
BIHI: Yes. He left with my nephew in 2008, and he's still alive, and he's been tweeting about who died in ISIS and where they came from - kind of maybe the new spokesman.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Since the end of 2013, law enforcement officials say, 11 men and one woman with ties to the Twin Cities have traveled to Syria. Another dozen or so have either tried to get there and were stopped or are believed to be preparing to go. What's more, officials say, the ISIS travelers are young - 15 and 16-year-olds are signing up. Bihi says that's scared the community.
BIHI: They are more afraid now than ever before because ISIS is something worse than anything we have ever seen with al-Shabab or any other Al-Qaida.
TEMPLE-RASTON: ISIS is taking advantage of the infrastructure another terrorist organization built in the Twin Cities almost a decade ago. Back then, in the first al-Shabab cases, three or four friends would suddenly go missing. Eventually, parents would get text messages from their sons saying they had gone to Somalia to fight in the civil war there. Authorities never captured a mastermind, but they did arrest a janitor who had connections to al-Shabab, and he was convicted, among other things, of helping recruit the young men and financing their trips. Law enforcement officials believe there is someone or a group of people on the ground in Minnesota recruiting for ISIS. Bihi, for his part, says nothing else makes sense.
BIHI: I do not believe that a kid gets up in the morning - a normal kid - and decides not to go to school but decides to open Google and Google al-Shabab or ISIS and to self radicalize. No.
TEMPLE-RASTON: But one morning last spring, a young Somali American 18-year-old, Abdullahi Yusuf, didn't show up for class. The events that change Abdullahi Yusuf's as he knows it began where I'm standing right now, outside the Heritage Academy in Minneapolis. This is where his father dropped him off for school last May. The high schooler watched until his dad's car was out of sight, and then he walked up the street just two short blocks to a nearby mosque. What Yusuf didn't know was that the FBI was watching him and intended to intercept him at the airport where he planned to board a flight, they allege, to join ISIS.
JEAN BRANDL: He's accused of providing material support to a terrorist organization.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Jean Brandl is one of Yusuf's attorneys.
BRANDL: And the government is alleging that he was going to Syria to provide material support, meaning his body, to ISIS.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI staked out Yusuf's school because they had a pretty good idea he planned to get on a plane that day. They'd been tipped off because he'd gone to the Minneapolis passport office, and the passport officer got suspicious.
BRANDL: There were many reasons given that the passport officer felt like it wasn't a legitimate trip to Turkey, and so notified the authorities, is the way I understand it.
TEMPLE-RASTON: According to the criminal complaint, the passport office asked who Yusuf was going to Turkey with. First he said he was going alone. Then he said his mom couldn't afford to go. Then he said he hoped to join up with a friend he'd just met on Facebook. Days later, the FBI says, Yusuf opened a bank account and made a series of small deposits totaling $1,500. Then he bought a plane ticket to Turkey. Abdullahi Yusuf had everything he needed to leave his home. I went to see his parents. His lawyer introduced us.
BRANDL: So Sidik, this is Dina.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Hi, Sidik. Nice to meet you.
SIDIK YUSUF: Hi. Nice to meet you too.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Thank you for coming. It's very sweet of you.
YUSUF: You're welcome.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Hi, Sarah. I'm Dina. Nice to meet you.
Sidik Yusuf is tall and thin. He's a driver in the Twin Cities. His wife Sarah wears a hijab and twists a tissue when she talks. They seem shocked that this has happened. Their son has never been in trouble before. They both understand English and speak it, but they want to talk to me through an interpreter.
YUSUF: (Through interpreter) Abdullahi is my son. Now he's 18 years and half. He come to this country when he was three years old. He finish his education until the 12th grade.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Sidik Yusuf didn't want to talk directly about his son's case, but he said others in the Somali community were going through the same thing - families losing their children to strangers.
YUSUF: (Through interpreter) Any parent can understand who have a child or raise the child knows what's the value of the children - that's the things anybody can understand.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Sidik Yusuf's son is one of six people from the Twin Cities who have been charged as part of the ongoing ISIS investigation. Local officials expect another three to five arrests in the next few weeks. 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.