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.”
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.
Not until the Minneapolis men began dying in the fight did the community begin to realize the high stakes.
Later, when it heard the horrors of Al-Shabab’s tactics from the mouths of recruits who defected and returned to face criminal charges for supporting the terror group, there was no doubt.
The recruits told stories of staying in a terrorist safe house and of mastering the workings of assault rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. One recruit told of being “scared to death” after being shown videos of beheadings.
As more became known, Al-Shabab’s appeal diminished.
Even when the terror group posted online a recruiting tape this summer that featured interviews with three Minnesotans who later died while fighting in Somalia, it seemed to do little to attract new recruits.
Bihi and others say they have seen little evidence that young men have left in the numbers that they once did.
FBI spokesman Kyle Loven declined to comment on whether recruitment in Minnesota has diminished, saying only that the agency’s investigation is “active.”
Victims no more
Just how much the community has grown was evident last week during several public rallies to denounce the attack in Kenya.
More than 50 men, women and children gathered outside Brian Coyle on Friday. Carrying signs reading “No Al-Shabab Is Welcome Here” and “Prosecute All Al-Shabab Recruiters,” they listened as more than a half dozen speakers rallied support for the victims and their families and sought to distance themselves from Al-Shabab’s radical ideology.
Earlier last week, nearly 20 local imams, or prayer leaders, gathered to preach against religious extremism. Never before had they spoken so clearly on the issue and in one voice.
“I don’t think that was possible five years ago,” Adam said.
Also last week, Ka Joog members raised their collective voice at a news conference that garnered worldwide attention. Mohamed Farah, founder of the group, stood before the row of television cameras, flanked by his peers — all dressed in suits and ties.
Several federal and local law enforcement officers looked on approvingly.
“The veil slowly has been lifting to reveal the true agenda and political intent of this extremist group,” Farah boomed from the podium. “We shall no longer be the victims of their terror.”
While the community is no longer afraid to speak out, the threat from Al-Shabab remains strong.
In a blog post last week, Ken Menkhaus, a Somali expert at Davidson College in North Carolina, called Al-Shabab’s attack on the Kenyan mall “an act of desperation by a jihadi group beset by internal power struggles and plummeting support.”
Over the past two years, Menkhaus wrote, Al-Shabab “has lost control of almost all of Somalia’s urban areas” and has suffered from “deep internal divisions.” The split “exploded in armed conflict” earlier this year and resulted in the deaths of several top leaders, including Omar Hammami of Alabama, who was the poster child for Americans fighting for Al-Shabab.
“Most importantly,” he wrote, “far fewer Somalis, both in country and in the large Somali Diaspora, actively support the group.”
But some experts also believe that a weakened Al-Shabab is a more dangerous Al-Shabab.
“Were the group to weaken and fragment,” Menkhaus wrote, “it would be more likely to consider high-risk terrorism abroad.”
When word spread across the globe that two of the gunmen at the Kenyan mall may have been Minnesotans, it renewed concerns that a homegrown terrorist might someday return and carry out an attack on U.S. soil. As of Saturday, officials had not confirmed the identities of the attackers.
“This is part of any terrorist group’s struggle for survival,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert from Georgetown University. “They are not in business to be put out of business.
“This is the oxygen they breathe. Are they desperate? Maybe, yeah. But they pulled it off.”
In Minnesota, that comes as little surprise.
Said Adam: “People are very clear now that this is a very dangerous ideology that must be forcefully challenged.”