Ralph Boelter was the new man leading the Minneapolis FBI office nearly four years ago when Somali families began reporting that their sons were disappearing, sometimes in the middle of the night.
It didn't take long for this former Marine and street cop, who looks like he came right out of G-man Central Casting, to mobilize what became one of the largest counterterrorism investigations since the attacks of 9/11.
Now, he is taking that expertise to Washington as the FBI's deputy assistant director in charge of counterterrorism.
Boelter said he plans to transfer a prime lesson learned here to his new job overseeing counterterrorism strategy: To combat extremism, the FBI needs to build solid, sincere relationships with the community.
"We had to be able to show people they could trust me, trust us," Boelter said of the local effort that eventually bore fruit.
Young men have been killed in the fighting. Others have been jailed and indicted. The investigation is ongoing, and Boelter said he cannot go into much detail.
But without the efforts of the local FBI to add community outreach to its terrorist-hunting role, several observers say boys might still be sneaking away -- and dying.
"He showed a side to the FBI that people don't see," said Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan. "They needed that. They needed a little more to make their case. And it paid off because of the connections he made. People came forward. He became somebody that they were willing to go to."
Drawn to service
Boelter grew up in Lake Geneva, Wis., admittedly drawn to public service. At 17, he joined the Marines. Later, he became a San Diego cop, working a variety of assignments, including protecting the mayor. After nine years, he said, he wanted more.
The FBI seemed a perfect fit. Boelter, 52, who looks freshly pressed even on the weekends, has worked in Los Angeles and Washington -- his job there inspecting field offices across the nation "from top to bottom."
When he took the job leading the Minneapolis division, few would have predicted that the Twin Cities would become the epicenter of a massive investigation of terrorism recruiting.
Then young Somali men, most with no memory of Somalia, began leaving to fight in their homeland for Al-Shabab, which is defined by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist group with ties to Al-Qaida. Many had been inspired by videos on the Internet, recruited by friends and relatives and other more shadowy figures.
"The news was alarming," Boelter said. "That there was a number of young Somali men who had left this area without telling their families to secretly travel to the Horn of Africa to fight with Al-Shabab."
From the beginning, investigators fanned out to question witnesses and identify suspects. Boelter also met with Somali community leaders, students and elders. He participated in public forums and agreed to interviews on cable access and community radio.
In May 2009, he was a guest on Zuhur Ahmed's radio show.
"He said, 'Trust us, we are trying to work for your safety and make things better for all of us,'" she remembers.
While he didn't share a lot of information, Ahmed said people appreciated his willingness to reach out.
"No one knew what was going on. Everything was in chaos," she said. "I think it was a positive thing, because it was a time when we were in 'us-versus-them' mode. He was able to interact with community members and hear their side of the story, rather than just from his agents."
Saeed Fahia, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, said Boelter's efforts put a human face on the FBI.
"Now the FBI is a known quantity. It's not just an acronym. It's people you know," she said.
"His empathy and understanding drove him to do things in what may be an unconventional way," U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones said. "It was Community Policing 101 and the stakes were very high. You cannot do effective community policing if the community is not with you."
Said Chief Dolan: "In my past here, I never saw an FBI agent in charge go out in the community. That's a first, and I think it was trying to quell fears, but it helped them in the end."
A total of 14 men, most of whom lived in the Minneapolis area, have been charged or indicted in connection with an investigation that began in late 2007, early 2008. Five have pleaded guilty. One awaits trial. Another awaits extradition from the Netherlands. The rest remain at large. Two Rochester women also face trial for allegedly providing money to Al-Shabab.
It's a complicated case that crosses several jurisdictions. But Boelter is known among his peers for a willingness to tap the knowledge of other agencies.
Whether it was collaborating with the Secret Service to fight cyber crime, or partnering with local cops to track down purveyors of child porn, Boelter knows the FBI cannot do its best work alone, said John Kirkwood, chief deputy of the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office and a former local head of the Secret Service.
"It wasn't just, 'We're the feds and you're the locals.' It was truly about our community," Kirkwood said. "He always kept in mind who was impacted by crime."
Boelter's job at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Va., will be to help root out terrorism from Minneapolis to Detroit, New York to Los Angeles. But, he said, that basic approach will remain the same.
Reach out, make connections, be sincere. "Minneapolis has given us a workable model," he said.
James Walsh • 612-673-7428