Minnesota Somalis united against Al-Shabab

Five years after bitter debate over an upstart terror group divided their Minnesota community, Somalis stand against Al-Shabab.

Five years ago, Abdifatah Farah was a college student and budding poet who knew little about the terrorist group rapidly emerging in the bloody ruin of his native Somalia.

He’d heard about the young men and boys from the Twin Cities who had vanished to join the fight for control of his homeland, and he knew that one had died in a suicide bombing there. But for the most part, this group that called itself Al-Shabab or “The Youth” was a mystery.

“Over time,” Farah, now 26, recalled, “we realized.”

Al-Shabab’s brutal massacre of nearly 70 civilians at a Kenyan shopping mall last week showed the world what Minneapolis has learned the hard way over the past five years — that the terror group’s reach is long and lethal.

Only a few years ago, nobody here wanted to talk about terrorism or suicide bombings or ties to Minnesota, home to the nation’s largest concentration of Somalis. The community was torn and in denial and locked in bitter debate over why the young men left. “The name ‘Al-Shabab’ was whispered,” said Abdirizak Bihi, a community activist whose nephew was killed in Somalia after joining Al-Shabab.

Today, everyone talks. “People are commenting and cursing and telling [Al-Shabab] ‘to go to hell,’ ” Bihi said.

Before, Farah’s youth group, called Ka Joog, which stands for “stay away,” dealt mostly with preventing young Somalis from joining gangs. Now, it finds itself spending its energy warning teens of Al-Shabab’s deadly lure and the dangers of radicalism.

Feelings toward investigators have softened, too. At the beginning of the FBI’s probe, young Somalis feared federal agents knocking on their doors. Now, they meet regularly with law enforcement to share information and vent concerns.

Despite the changed landscape, underlying issues that make youth vulnerable to radicalism still exist. Many remain frustrated by their inability to find work. Some feel rejected by the American mainstream. Fears persist that the most discouraged may still fall prey to the Al-Shabab sales pitch, seduced by slick videos that invite them to take up arms for a “jihadist” cause.

Some worry, too, that as Al-Shabab remakes itself after months of decline, it may become more dangerous than ever, actively recruiting more members from Minnesota.

“I can’t guarantee that no one will go over and join these extreme groups,” said Abdisalam Adam, a local Somali community leader. But, he added, “at least now, there is more awareness.”

Changing times

On a warm Friday afternoon at the Brian Coyle Community Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, Liiban Ahmed, 23, said he didn’t know the young men who left for Somalia five years ago.

“I saw their pictures on the website. I know their story,” said Ahmed, who grew up in the giant apartment towers that dominate the West Bank skyline and are home to hundreds of Somali families.

“But to be honest with you, I pay no attention to Al-Shabab.”

As Ahmed spoke, dozens of teens and young children shot baskets or kicked soccer balls at a nearby field. Under the sunny September sky, Cedar-Riverside was a community at play.

The mood on this day was in stark contrast to the feeling five years ago, when national media descended to document the unfolding story of a community divided.

For months, bitter debate circulated over how and why some 20 young men left for Somalia. Some struggled to understand what would compel the men to leave the safety of their homes for the chaos of a country in the midst of civil war.

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