Six months have passed since Mustafa Ali vanished from St. Paul. His family is left to wonder how he got to Somalia and why.
His unmade bed is pushed tight against the far wall of the bedroom, the rumpled blankets untouched since the day he disappeared.
His shirts and jeans still hang from a nearby closet, and books are stacked or scattered about the floor as he left them.
"Nothing has changed," his father says, his voice cracking as he looks around the room where his son once slept. "Nothing has changed since Mustafa left."
Six months have passed since 18-year-old Mustafa Ali slipped out of his family's third-floor apartment on St. Paul's East Side and never came back. Not a day passes without the teenager's loved ones being haunted by the mystery of why he left or what has become of him.
Was he, along with his best friend and more than a half-dozen other Somali teenagers and young men from the Twin Cities, recruited by local imams or Islamic extremists to return to war-torn Somalia to fight in the nation's civil war? Or was Mustafa simply an impressionable teenager acting on a long-expressed desire to return to his homeland?
As family members pray for his safety and return, they've spent the past six months trying to accept what appears to be the disturbing reality -- that the quiet, affable high school senior who loved football, history and video games secretly conspired with other Twin Cities Somalis to return and become soldiers for one or more of the warring groups there.
'We don't want to believe Mustafa can keep a secret from us for so long," said his father, Ali, 58, an unemployed engineer who brought his family to the United States nine years ago from a refugee camp in Kenya. "There are many 'Whys? Whys? Whys? Why this or that?' And we don't have an answer."
The FBI, which is investigating an alleged link between some in the Twin Cities and violence in Somalia, won't comment on how many Somali teenagers or young men have left to fight or possibly receive terrorist training. But several sources within the community say they believe Mustafa is one of seven to nine Somalis who have gone back since August.
Many, including Shirwa Ah- med, a Minneapolis man who returned to the country and killed himself in a suicide bombing, had ties to, or spent time at Abubakar As-Saddique, a large mosque in south Minneapolis.
E.K. Wilson, an FBI spokesman, wouldn't comment last week about whether Mustafa and others were recruited by someone affiliated with Twin Cities mosques.
"Nobody knows for sure if they went to fight, and if they did, who or what they are fighting for," said Saeed Fahia, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota.
Mahir Sherif, a California attorney who acts as a consultant to Abubakar and other mosques nationwide, said there has been no credible evidence to suggest a Twin Cities mosque influenced the young men or financed their travel.
"To this date, there has never been anything specific to indicate that Abubakar recruits or that anybody at Abubakar said to these young men, 'Go fight Jihad,'" Sherif said.
But Mustafa's older brother, Deeq, 22, and some of his relatives perceive a link.
The family's suspicions were fueled again last week when Mustafa called home. In all the time he has been gone, Mustafa has called home only twice, his family said. Both calls came on days that Somali leaders in Minneapolis had scheduled news conferences to talk about the missing men.
"I'm 100 percent sure that there are people in there who have influenced him and those people are claiming to be sheiks," Deeq said.
Like the relatives of others who left, Mustafa's family members are reluctant to talk of his disappearance. Yet their anger, the possible connection to local mosques and the tension over the issue within the Twin Cities' Somali community have made it easier for them to discuss what has happened.
To protect themselves and Mustafa, they've asked to be identified only by first names.
"I want to go over there and confront them," Deeq said of the leaders of the Abubakar mosque, where Mustafa spent much of his spare time. Deeq said he hasn't gone out of respect for his mother, who told him that it would reflect badly on the family and possibly have spiritual consequences.
"He gave up everything," Deeq said. "Family life. School. ... And he leaves based just on some dumb idea he had.''
'The best of us'
At 5 foot 7, 190 pounds, Mustafa is a muscular teenager who could be talkative but often kept to himself, his siblings said. He shared a subsidized apartment with his parents and six brothers and sisters.
After school, he'd often help his mother with chores or errands while juggling homework or tending to his younger brothers or sisters.
"He was the best of us," said his sister Ikran, 21, a senior at St. Cloud State University. "We all loved him."
Deeq, who is four years older than Mustafa, said the brothers shared a love for video games and often talked about what they might do with their lives. Deeq once wanted to be a Marine. Mustafa talked about the Navy or becoming a cop. He was religious, too, but it was nothing unhealthy, Deeq said.
That changed after Deeq moved to Minneapolis in 2006 to be closer to the Minneapolis Community and Technical College, where he attends classes. When Deeq moved back home in early 2008, he noticed a change. Once, religion had been important to Mustafa; suddenly, it was everything.
At night and on weekends, Mustafa often drove to the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, a mosque he and his family frequented when they lived in Minneapolis.
"He was more into his mosque than his family life." Deeq said. "I was trying to find out what was going on, but ... he wouldn't talk about it."
Late in the afternoon of Aug. 1, Mustafa was washing clothes at his family's apartment. He told Ikran that he was going outside to get something, but would be right back. When he didn't return, his mother called his cell. He didn't pick up.
As darkness set in, calls were made to his friends. Nobody had seen Mustafa.
By 11 p.m., his mother called several local hospitals, but there was no word about her son.
Soon, a few of Ikran's friends called. They'd heard Mustafa had been seen at the airport.
"I thought it was all a joke," she said.
About 1 a.m., Mustafa's mother tried his cell again. This time, automated voicemail said the phone was no longer in the local coverage area.
"That's when she got real worried something was wrong," Deeq said.
Later that morning, she and Ikran drove to Minneapolis to see whether anyone at Abubakar knew anything about Mustafa's disappearance. They didn't, but parents of Mustafa's best friend said their son also was missing. After finding a travel agent's card in the wallet Mustafa left behind, Ikran and her mother called the agent, who confirmed their fears -- Mustafa, who spent only the first few months of his life in Somalia, was headed back to a war zone.
"He always told me he wanted to go back someday," Ikran said. "But he never really said, 'I want to go now.'
"He never told me he was going back to fight or to be al jihadi."
A bad dream
Mustafa's mother clings to the hope that her son will return soon.
The hardest part of her day comes at midafternoon, when the school buses drop off students, and Mustafa, who would have been a senior at Harding High School, is not with them.
"This is like a long, bad dream I'm waiting to awake from," she said.
Ali worries that he may never see Mustafa again. He wants to go to Somalia to find his boy, "but it is not realistic. I don't feel safe."
Family members have met several times with the FBI in the hope that agents can tell them something about their son's whereabouts and who financed his return to Somalia. They've learned little.
Deeq said his parents have spoken with the relatives of Mustafa's best friend. "That kid's family, they don't tell us anything," Deeq said. "They keep us in the dark."
Ali checks the Internet each day for news about Somalia. Each night, he tucks his cell phone beneath his pillow, in case Mustafa calls.
Mustafa's first call came in early December, but no one was home. Speaking Somali, he left a brief message.
The second call, which lasted only a few minutes, came last week, an hour before local Somali leaders canceled a news conference about the missing men.
"He was laughing, joking. He was trying to put a smile on our faces," Deeq said.
But Mustafa, speaking only Somali, wasn't telling them everything, the family believes. They didn't push him on how or why he left or where he was, Ali said, because they feared Mustafa was being monitored.
"We don't ask him things because we understand immediately that this is not a private conversation between us and him," Ali said.
He told his mother he "missed his life and his school" and expressed concern for his family and "the consequences of his actions," Deeq said.
He said nothing about whether he might return.
"We know he's sorry," Ali said. "I know he misses us as much as we miss him."
Deeq said his last memory of Mustafa haunts him. The night before Mustafa left, Deeq looked into his brother's bedroom and saw him lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling, one hand behind his head, the other on his chin.
"He was just staring through the roof," Deeq said. "I've never seen him like that. Physically, he was there. But mentally, he was not. I had a gut feeling something was not right. ... But I never thought he'd do something like this."
Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425