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Did U student join Somali terror group?

  • Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW and ALLIE SHAH
  • Star Tribune
  • September 21, 2012 - 9:47 PM

The apparent return of a Minneapolis man to his Somali homeland to fight for a terrorist group and a recent flurry of FBI activity have cast new attention on a longstanding counterterrorism investigation with deep local ties.

Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali community activist, identified the latest man believed to have returned to Somalia as Omar Farah, 21, who went by the nickname "Khalif."

Bihi, speaking for Farah's family, said that the University of Minnesota electrical engineering student and 2010 graduate of Minneapolis Edison left Minneapolis about six weeks ago, telling friends that he was getting married in Kenya.

About a week after he left, Bihi said, the man called his aunt, who raised him, and told her that he was in the Somali seaside city of Merca to join Al-Shabab, a terrorist group that U.S. officials have linked to Al-Qaida.

"She asked him, 'Did you go to those people?' " Bihi said. "And he said 'yes.' " Farah said nothing more.

Minnesota, home to the nation's largest Somali population, has been at the center of one of the largest counterterrorism probes since the 9/11 attacks. The investigation began in 2007, when the first of more than 20 local Somali men and boys left to join Al-Shabab.

E.K. Wilson, an FBI supervisory special agent, said Friday that he couldn't confirm Farah's departure. But he said the agency investigation into recruitment and radicalization of local Somalis is still "a top priority. That continues and will continue for some time to come."

Bihi said he last saw Farah, who lived in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, several days before he left.

He described Farah as "deeply religious" but also "very confused and desperate for work. Lately, he was talking about how there's nothing good in this world."

It is unclear whether Farah's departure is an isolated case or part of a broader movement.

While the recruitment of so many local Somalis made international news several years ago, there have been no confirmed reports of young men leaving to fight more recently. As a result, the visibility of the case, known as "Operation Rhino," has faded as the investigation has shifted to the courtroom and pending trials.

Saeed Fahia, director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, said he doubts that many more men have left to join Al-Shabab, in part because its influence in war-torn Somalia is in decline.

"No, no, no," Fahia said Friday of the possibility more local Somalis were being recruited for the jihadist cause. "Shabab is losing left and right. I'm thinking it was just something within [Farah] that he wants to go back there anyway."

Somalia has been engulfed in war since 1991, when the military dictatorship was toppled and rival clans battled for control.

In recent months, African Union forces brought in by the United Nations to stabilize a weak transitional federal government have regained control of several cities -- including Merca -- previously controlled by Al-Shabab. The momentum seems to have shifted in favor of government soldiers.

The election last week of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud -- the first free elections held in Somalia in decades -- also was seen as a sign that the country may be stabilizing.

"I'm sure young people are going back, but it is because of the changes that have happened there," Fahia said. "Mogadishu has become better. It's not as violent. People are visiting the beaches again and coming out in the city. You hear good stories."

"Shabab basically right now has been holding on," said Mahir Sherif, an attorney for the North American Council of Somali Imams. "It's fighting for survival. So I don't think its mind is on recruiting."

But Bihi, whose 18-year-old nephew left Minneapolis in November 2008 to join Al-Shabab and was later killed, said he believes Farah's departure is "part of a trend that has not stopped."

No evidence of attack plans

Among the first Somali Minneapolis men to leave was Shirwa Ahmed, who killed himself in October 2008 as part of a series of coordinated suicide bombings in northern Somalia that killed 28 people.

Ahmed's death immediately heightened fears in the U.S. intelligence community that other Somali men who left the country to train with terrorists might return and carry out an attack on American soil.

Federal agents have said they've found no evidence to date of planned attacks here.

More than a dozen of the men who left Minnesota have been charged with terrorist acts. Several have pleaded guilty, others are awaiting trial or sentencing. At least eight of the men, including a 28-year-old Muslim convert, died or were killed in Somalia.

Bihi said Friday that in recent years, he has heard stories of many young men who have left to join Al-Shabab. In nearly all cases, however, he has not been able to confirm them.

Subpoenas issued

Lori Saroya, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said her office has received several calls this month from Somalis inquiring about their rights after being visited by FBI agents or receiving grand jury subpoenas.

"We don't know what it's about," she said.

Stephen L. Smith, a Minneapolis attorney, said he also was contacted by a Somali man regarding a grand jury subpoena and talked with several others the FBI hopes to interview.

Smith said he wasn't sure whether the inquires are related to the counterterrorism probe.

"It's probably too early to tell," he said. "Whether there are folks out there still interested in going to Somalia and joining Al-Shabab, I guess time will tell."

richm@startribune.com • 612-673-4425 ashah@startribune.com • 612-673-4488

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