Who was terror plot mastermind?

Somalis frustrated by pace of FBI investigation of Twin Cities recruiting.

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Amina Fahar, center, during a rally Saturday supporting Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed in Minneapolis.

Photo: Leah Millis, Star Tribune

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Nearly three years ago, a Minneapolis man blew himself up oceans away in Somalia.

His death put Minnesota at the heart of a still unfolding multinational counterterrorism probe that has seen 20 Minnesotans indicted on terror-related charges, at least another nine killed in fighting overseas and a handful more arrested and convicted. Others have been charged with fundraising or wiring money to a terror group in Somalia, and one of the men charged is scheduled to go on trial next month -- a first in the case.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder visited Minneapolis last month to reaffirm his office's commitment to rooting out those responsible for the recruiting of young Somali-Americans to return to Africa to fight for the terrorist group Al-Shabab.

Yet investigators appear no closer to unmasking a leader of the nebulous network that found foot soldiers in the Twin Cities.

The FBI's failure so far to publicly uncover a mastermind has spawned disillusionment among some in the local Somali community who wonder when, if ever, justice will be served.

"They know the big recruiters. The government knows everything," said Abdirizak Bihi, whose teenage nephew is believed to have been killed in Somalia in 2009 after joining Al-Shabab, which U.S. officials say is affiliated with Al-Qaida.

"Someone organized this group,'' said Dr. Abdirahman D. Mohamed, a local physician and community leader. "The fact that we can't find those key individuals two years-plus, that has created a lot of people saying, 'What's going on here?'"

A 'flatter' organization

What federal officials dubbed Operation Rhino began following the suicide bombing committed by former Minneapolis resident Shirwa Ahmed in Somalia in October 2008. Since then, investigators have identified 21 "travelers" and several more "middle men" who they contend raised money and arranged the travel of recruits to Africa. Many of those organizers, however, remain at large and are believed to be in Somalia. Special Agent E.K. Wilson of the FBI's Minneapolis office said he could not comment on how many of those at-large are still in Minnesota.

While limited in what he can say -- especially with the trial of alleged organizer Omer Abdi Mohamed set to begin July 19 -- Wilson acknowledged some things are clear.

Young men were recruited and indoctrinated by peers. Money was raised and travel arranged by those in "more of a leadership role," he said. But no kingpin has been revealed.

"It's evolving daily -- still," Wilson said of an investigation that has stretched from Minnesota to Canada, Europe and Australia. "We're still trying to put those pieces together and find out who did what. That's information we're refining and will still be working on for years to come."

What drives the FBI, Wilson said, is protecting America from the possibility that someone trained by terrorists overseas will return to carry out an attack here. That threat makes this investigation a priority, he said, although there has been no evidence of such a plot.

Community wants answers

Until recently, the case had mostly slipped off the public radar. That changed when a second Minnesota suicide bomber was identified last week. Farah Mohamed Beledi's death in a hail of gunfire in Mogadishu rekindled frustration with the pace of the investigation.

Like many of the men who left, Beledi was known to have worshipped at Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis -- the largest mosque in Minnesota.

Beledi didn't work at the center, but sometimes volunteered there, according to a recent statement from Abubakar's executive director, Hassan Jama. Beledi also spoke at a public open house at the center in February 2009, several months before he left the country.

"As for Farah's alleged travel and subsequent death in Somalia, the center has learned that from the media," Jama said in the statement.

To date, the FBI has found no evidence that mosque leaders, including Abubakar's, were responsible for the recruitment of those who went back to Somalia, Wilson said.

Bihi, who once defended the sometimes-methodical pace of U.S. justice, has lost patience.

"For a long time I would explain that this system is different. They need a lot of evidence. But now I'm running out of excuses," he said.

At the Starbucks on Riverside Avenue in Minneapolis -- a hub for local Somali-American men to discuss current affairs -- cynicism and conspiracy theories abound. Regular meetings between federal officials and local Somali leaders and youth have built relationships but have done little to quell demands for a ringleader's arrest.

Bihi says authorities must do more to communicate to the Somali community that the case remains on the front burner.

"They need to say this investigation is important to us and there are a lot of things going on but we can't tell you," he said.

Two years ago, the FBI's special agent in charge in Minneapolis went on a popular local Somali radio show and took questions from callers. Such direct communication would go a long way toward reassuring people, Bihi said.

"We had a good momentum," Bihi said. "I think we are losing it."

His sister, Zienab Bihie, who lost her son after he returned to Somalia, grew so tired of the constant questions about what happened that she moved to Arizona recently.

The father of another young man who left to fight says he and his family, too, have tired of talking about what happened.

But the FBI's failure to nab a head conspirator may simply reflect reality, according to local attorney Stephen L. Smith, who has represented 20-30 witnesses and possible suspects.

Smith, who began getting calls in 2009 from local Somalis called to testify before a federal grand jury, said he wouldn't be surprised if investigators "had the top dog wrapped up."

But, he added, "I think there are people higher up. I don't think there's 'The One.'"

Smith said he is convinced there are people here and abroad who helped local men reach the Horn of Africa. The ongoing investigation appears to have slowed that traffic, he said, but young Somalis still may be slipping away to fight.

Fears anew

Mohamed, the physician, said he believes that investigators will one day crack the case. But the longer it takes to find the leaders responsible, the more fearful people are for their kids.

The FBI was first alerted to the case, after all, by parents who realized their sons had disappeared and then resurfaced in Somalia. None of them has returned to their families. Without a leader being held accountable, he said, what will keep a new group of sons from disappearing?

"We all believe that there are key individuals that are still missing," Mohamed said. "What if they are continuing to recruit people? Or what if they are laying low and will start up once this dies down."

ashah@startribune.com • 612-673-4488 jwalsh@startribune.com • 612-673-7428

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