It had all the trappings of a typical community celebration -- colorful balloons, great food, happy families and easy conversation. But there was a tense undercurrent at Wednesday's open house at the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.
On Monday, FBI Director Robert Mueller told the Council on Foreign Relations that a Somali-American man from Minnesota, one of several suicide bombers in an October terrorist attack in Somalia, had apparently been indoctrinated and recruited by a militant group while living in Minneapolis.
Although Mueller didn't name Abubakar, Shirwa Ahmed, the first known suicide bomber with U.S. citizenship, attended the mosque -- as did other young Somali men who have disappeared from the Twin Cities in recent months, sparking speculation that they were recruited to fight in their country's civil war.
Leaders of the mosque have repeatedly denied any connection, and the open house was an attempt at transparency in the face of increasing news media and law enforcement scrutiny. Retaining that openness -- and developing a proactive relationship with federal authorities -- will be an important challenge for leaders of the growing Somali community in Minnesota.
This could be a critical turning point for the 25,000 or so people of Somali background who began arriving in the Twin Cities in large numbers in the 1990s. As they continue to work to demystify Islam in their adopted home, they must just as strongly denounce the dangerous extremism that apparently led Ahmed to drive a vehicle packed with explosives that killed as many as 30 people in Somalia.
Federal authorities have said Ahmed left the Twin Cities after being recruited by the Shabab, a militia linked to Al-Qaida that is warring against the Somali government. Several local families fear their sons have also been lured back to their homeland by terrorist groups. In a chilling story earlier this month, the Star Tribune's Richard Meryhew described the mysterious disappearance of 18-year-old Mustafa Ali, who fled his family's St. Paul apartment six months ago and never returned.
The stories of Ahmed and Ali -- along with growing problems with drugs, gangs and violent crime among Somalis in Minnesota -- were topics of conversation at the Abubakar open house. "I think the Somali community needs help more than ever now,'' said Abdulahi Farah, 27, a community outreach worker who came to the United States as an 11-year-old.
Minnesota remains a mostly tolerant, supportive home, but Farah knows that relationships built on hard work and trust over the past few decades are in jeopardy today. The soul-searching and community building in the Somali community is healthy. Parents whose sons have disappeared deserve answers, and Minnesotans need reassurance that the Twin Cities area is not a training ground for terror. It was encouraging to hear that leaders of the mosque have reached out to the FBI. For too long, many Somalis have feared the very law enforcement agencies that provide the safety and security they were seeking when they left east Africa.
Some of the clan loyalties that divided Somalis in Africa live on in Minnesota, making it especially difficult for authorities to build productive relationships. At the same time, Somali-Americans who have made great strides in building better lives in this country need local leaders who can unite the community in the face of growing fear and suspicion.
"We need more coming together and working together,'' Farah said as he surveyed the crowd at Wednesday's open house. "What affects one of us affects all of us.''