Tuesday: Missing Twin Cities Somalis, terror ties probed

  • Article by: JAMES WALSH, LORA PABST and PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: November 25, 2008 - 12:05 AM

One Twin Cities immigrant who returned home became a suicide bomber, a source says.

Federal authorities are investigating whether young Somali men who have disappeared in the Twin Cities metro area in recent months have been recruited to fight for terrorist groups in strife-torn Somalia.

A source familiar with the case confirmed Tuesday that there is a high-level investigation of whether six to seven young Somali men and teenagers left the Twin Cities and returned to their homeland to participate in terrorist activities. The source confirmed that one of the people in that group under scrutiny had returned to Somalia around the first of the year and blown himself up in a terrorist-led operation there.

Additionally, E.K. Wilson, spokesman for the Minneapolis office of the FBI, would not confirm an investigation. But he acknowledged the agency's concern that young Somali men have been returning to Somalia to fight.

He said he could not say whether Shirwa Ahmed, a Twin Cities man named in a KSTP-TV report Tuesday, was one of them.

The station said that federal authorities are investigating whether Ahmed was a terrorism recruiter in the Twin Cities who blew himself up in northern Somalia last month.

"We are aware of the circumstances in Somalia," Wilson said. "We are aware that a number of individuals throughout the U.S., including Minneapolis, have traveled to Somalia to fight for terrorist groups. But I cannot confirm or deny an investigation at this point."

A woman who said she was Ahmed's sister said Tuesday night that her brother left the United States for Saudi Arabia "a year ago." She said she last spoke to Ahmed about a month ago, when he called her from Yemen.

The woman, who did not want to give her name, said that she has been contacted by the FBI and that officials want her to come to their office for an interview. Asked whether she is going to do that soon, she said, "I don't know."

She would not say why her brother went to Saudi Arabia or what he was doing in Yemen. And, she said, she does not know if her brother is dead or alive.

Her family, including Ahmed, came to the United States in 1995, she said, adding that her brother graduated from Minneapolis Roosevelt High School in 1999.

Families 'completely shocked'

Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, said several local Somali families' sons have disappeared in the past few months. Two groups of men in their 20s left Minneapolis at the beginning of August and the beginning of November, Jamal said. He estimated that 14 to 20 men are missing.

Authorities said that metro-area TV news reports saying that as many as 20 or more Somali men were being recruited for terrorist operations were inflated.

"The families are completely shocked," Jamal said. "They feel their kids have been stolen away from them."

Many of the family members of the missing men have been hesitant to talk to authorities, Jamal said. While most of the families have not heard from their sons, Jamal said, one man received a call from his nephew, who told him that he was in Somalia.

"Somebody must be financing these kids, indoctrinating them," he said. "We hope the appropriate law enforcement agency gets to the bottom of this."

Jamal described the men as mostly college-educated, "from homes with strong family values, but with a strong sense of cultural shock."

The gang culture and violence that has affected the Minneapolis Somali community left a lot of young men looking for other options in their lives, he said. He said he is concerned that someone persuaded the men to return to Somalia.

"They've been left alone, marginalized," Jamal said. "They show them alternatives."

Abdisalam Adam, director of Dar Al-Hijrah Cultural Center in Minneapolis, said there is a lot of confusion in the Somali community about why the men would have left. He questioned rumors that the men are being recruited to leave the U.S., saying he doesn't know of anyone who has been approached to go to Somalia.

"No one knows exactly who is behind this and who is convincing them to leave," he said.

The focus of the Somali community in Minneapolis should be on peace in Somalia, he said.

"That's a voice we need to get to the policymakers," Adam said. "As long as there is no peace in Somalia, it will continue to affect the lives of immigrants."

Jamal and Adam encouraged local Somalis to talk to authorities if any of their family members are missing.

"We should not hide it," Adam said. "We should be upfront, and if we find out about anyone involved we should let the authorities know about this."

Jamal said he asks the young men in Somalia to report to a U.S. consulate "We think of them as victims that have been misled," Jamal said. "I don't want them to be afraid."

Wilson added: "We are committed to working with members of the Somali-American community in Minneapolis and in other cities to stop the recruitment and radicalization of their youth. We encourage Somali-Americans to reach out to us, or to the police, with any concerns about the safety of the youth in their community."

jwalsh@startribune.com • 612-673-7428 lpabst@startribune.com • 612-673-4628 plouwagie@startribune.com • 612-673-7102

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