The Minneapolis FBI is investigating information that members of the Somali community from the Twin Cities are fighting in the Syrian civil war.
Two FBI agents met with a group of Somali-American leaders and members of the community at the Brian Coyle Community Center on Tuesday, said Abdirizak Bihi, director of Somali Education and Social Advocacy in Minneapolis. He estimated that 20 to 25 people, not all of whom were Somali-Americans, attended.
The local FBI announced the investigation Tuesday.
"We are reviewing information … to identify persons who may have traveled, and persons who may have intention to travel" to Syria, said Kyle Loven, chief division counsel for the Minneapolis office of the FBI.
"We plan to actively engage with the community to identify at-risk youth who may be considering travel to fight in Syria," Loven said.
Asked how many people the FBI thinks might have traveled to Syria from Minneapolis, Loven said, "some — some who we believe have traveled, and some who may have considered it."
The FBI posted a notice on its Minneapolis website Tuesday asking members of the public with information about anyone going overseas to fight in armed conflicts to call the agency's Minneapolis office.
Loven noted that among the organizations fighting the Assad regime in Syria are foreign terrorist organizations, known as FTOs, designated as terrorists by the State Department.
He said the agency is trying to figure out if the Minnesotans are fighting with those groups or others that are not considered terrorists.
"This is similar to a situation which came to our intention in the fall of 2007 when young Somali men from Minneapolis disappeared, only to turn up in Somalia, fighting on behalf of Al-Shabab," he said.
The U.S. State Department has designated Al-Shabab a terrorist organization, and a number of Minnesotans of Somali heritage have since been convicted in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis for either going to Somalia to fight with Al-Shabab or raise money for people to travel there. Several others have been convicted and imprisoned for lying to the FBI or a grand jury about what they knew about the efforts to support Al-Shabab.
Loven underscored that federal law prohibits American citizens from traveling to foreign countries to fight in foreign wars, whether they join FTOs, or military organizations not so designated.
There have been recent efforts by Minnesotans, including some of Syrian origin, who have been raising funds for refugees created by the civil war in Syria, and Loven was asked if that was a concern. "We are only talking about participation in armed conflict," he said. "Our efforts are not focused on those who are providing legitimate humanitarian relief."
Bihi said there was a report this week on a Somali news program on Voice of America, the U.S.-funded radio network, that included an interview with a woman from Minneapolis who told a reporter that her brother, who is also from Minneapolis, had become radicalized by a local sheik.
"The sister said she could not find her brother and that he texted her that he left the country and was going to fight for jihad," Bihi said. She said the family called the FBI, which investigated and learned that her brother had gone to Turkey, which borders Syria.
She said he got there by first driving with 12 other Minnesotans from Minneapolis to New Jersey, where they caught planes. The other 12 traveled to Somalia. She said her brother, who is 20, was interviewed in a hotel by Turkish police. She said he had since left the hotel, but she didn't know where he was.
U.S. officials said other Americans have gone to Syria in recent years. One, a man in his early 20s who grew up in Florida, died last month while carrying out a suicide bombing in Syria, officials said.
Omar Jamal, a Somali-American activist who has a St. Paul consulting firm, said he has heard reports of Somalis going to Syria for the last couple of months and had spoken to some concerned parents. "I urge the community to not be afraid to call the FBI," he said.
Mohamud Noor, interim executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota and a member of the Minneapolis school board, said he met with the FBI and then attended the meeting, which was at a monthly Brian Coyle staff meeting.
The FBI is being "more proactive" Noor said, trying "to address the situation before it becomes a reality." Asked if agents gave details on what they knew, he said that had not shared "tangible" information, but expressed their concerns. "They want to hear if people are missing or something isn't right," he said "I think they are not managing a crisis; they are trying to avoid a crisis."
Bihi said that although "the FBI and law enforcement is doing a wonderful job," he worried that the Somali community has been given few resources to tackle the kind of problems that lead to the radicalization of vulnerable Somali youth where unemployment is high.
He said there was a desperate need for after-school programming, sports programs, mentoring, job training and jobs. "They are spending millions of dollars fighting with drones in Somalia; they should be investing in the youth here," he said. "We need that support."