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Somalis' holy trip ends at airport

  • Article by: JAMES WALSH and PAM LOUWAGIE
  • Star Tribune
  • November 30, 2008 - 11:25 PM

An imam and a youth coordinator at a Minneapolis mosque were prohibited from boarding a flight Saturday morning to Saudi Arabia as part of a spiritual pilgrimage, an attorney for the mosque confirmed Sunday.

The attorney said it's likely the men are on a federal "no fly" list because they and the mosque have been connected by rumor to a number of missing Somali men whose families fear have returned to their East African homeland to fight in that nation's civil unrest or to receive terrorist training.

The FBI, which has been investigating alleged links between some in Minneapolis' large Somali refugee community and the strife in that nation, would not comment on the airport incident. The scope of any such links, if they exist, remains unclear.

Sheikh Abdirahman Ahmed of Abubakar As-Saddique, a large mosque in the Cedar-Riverside area of Minneapolis, and the mosque's youth coordinator, who did not want to give his name, were not allowed to board a flight at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, but were not told why. The youth coordinator said others in a group that planned to make the trip -- a hajj, or spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina-- also were not allowed to board, but he did not know how many people were involved.

Mahir Sherif, a California attorney who represents Abubakar as well as other Somali mosques across the country, said there are many possible reasons why the men are on the federal Transportation Security Administration's "no fly" list, which as of mid-August contained about 50,000 names. But he suspects that the reasons are linked to stories circulating in the Somali community that the mosque has been used to indoctrinate and train young men to return to Somalia -- stories that Sherif strongly denied Sunday.

"We think, we suspect, there is some kind of formal investigation [of the mosque] being conducted by the FBI right now," Sherif said. "What gave me more evidence that there is some kind of official investigation going on was that the second man was kept from boarding. He is head of a youth group at the masjid [mosque]."

Sherif said he knows of no other U.S. Somali community where the return of young men to Somalia has captured attention from the community or the FBI.

Sherif said stories have been circulating in Minneapolis' Somali community for weeks that young men have gone missing and that they are going to Somalia to fight. Other rumors -- that all of the missing men attended Abubakar, that they were persuaded by people at the mosque to return to Somalia to fight and that they received training there to do that -- also have been growing, he said.

A source familiar with the federal investigation confirmed last week that one young Minneapolis man who returned to Somalia at the beginning of this year blew himself up in a terrorist-led operation there.

For families, fear and worry

An 18-year-old man disappeared Nov. 1 and called a relative a few days later saying he was somewhere in Somalia but didn't know exactly what city, another relative said.

The man and his relative are not being named out of concern for their safety.

The relative said he is a bright young man who attended the University of Minnesota and spent a lot of time at the Abubakar mosque.

"He used to sleep at the mosque ... like he lived there," the relative said through an interpreter in a West Bank apartment.

The family was relieved he was going to the mosque instead of out to bars, the relative said. But they are convinced that someone, somewhere brainwashed him to go back to Somalia.

"They took him to hell," the relative said through tears, adding that the family is crazy with worry.

"He was very smart," the relative said. "I never thought anyone could mislead him."

Osman Ahmed said his 17-year-old nephew, who disappeared Nov. 4, was "very connected" at Abubakar. The family didn't want the nephew's name used out of fear for his safety.

Ahmed said he has spoken to parents of five other missing young men who also spent time at the mosque.

"We are not saying Abubakar is ... responsible for the recruiting for the kids," Ahmed said. "We are not suspicious of the mosque, but we are concerned about how they handled this case."

He said families of the missing feel that leaders have been trying to minimize what's going on instead of condemning any recruitment.

Sherif, the mosque's attorney, said that he understands that some in the community convinced several mothers of missing men to go to the FBI and tell them that the mosque was somehow involved. The trouble is, he said, none of it is true.

Not all the missing young men attended Abubakar, Sherif said. Unlike many churches, mosques do not have formal membership and people are free to attend any mosque at any time. Some attend several different mosques in a week, he said.

And he said that no one at the mosque encouraged men to return to fight, for any reason. Abubakar is a large mosque with large groups and many instructors, he said. But all the instructors are told to stay away from political talk because the issues are so divisive.

"There's a claim that there is a nexus between the men and Abubakar," Sherif said. "And there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to indicate the [mosque] had anything to do with any of that."

Rather, he said, he believes that the rumors about the mosque are an attempt by some in the community to tarnish its image. It's not unlike the division and infighting that has been going on in Somalia for decades, he said.

Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, said that on Monday, his organization will write a letter to the FBI asking for more information about why the men were not allowed to board their flight.

Jamal acknowledged that many rumors are circulating, but he said: "We have nothing, no clear evidence connecting those kids to the mosque. That is why I am concerned."

Staff writer Randy Furst contributed to this story. jwalsh@startribune.com • 612-673-7428 plouwagie@startribune.com • 612-673-7102

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