Fartun Ahmed, 19, hugged a young woman at the towers in the Cedar-Riverside as she posted fliers to promote the 2010 census. She works to reinforce a peaceful interpretation of Islam.
Jerry Holt, Star Tribune
Abdirizak Bihi, with members of a youth soccer team, often shares the story of his nephew, who was killed after being lured to Somalia by Al-Shabaab.
Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune
- Article by: Richard Meryhew and Allie Shah
- Star Tribune
- March 17, 2010 - 11:39 AM
She's 19, a college sophomore and a product of the Twin Cities suburbs. He's 45, a father of four with boyhood memories of swimming in the cool ocean waters off the beaches of Mogadishu.
Reserved and religious, she favors a long, billowing hijab and is known to many as "the mosque girl." Outgoing and outspoken, he prefers blue jeans and sneakers and debating politics with friends at his favorite Starbucks.
In many ways, Fartun Ahmed and Abdirizak Bihi are worlds apart.
But amid an extremist fervor expanding globally and inspiring some young Muslims to become warriors for jihad, the two local Somalis now share a common passion and purpose.
Working at all hours, they are waging their own personal jihad, hoping to win the hearts and minds of Somali teens being tempted to embrace a radical ideology that for many is only a keystroke or YouTube clip away.
"They want to steal our youth," Bihi says.
For both, the task is urgent. Already, about 20 Somali-Americans from Minnesota have been recruited by the terrorist group Al-Shabaab to go overseas. Five of them, including Bihi's teenage nephew, have died while training and fighting in Somalia's bloody civil war. One died while killing others in a suicide attack.
In the aftermath of several recent terrorist incidents and arrests nationally, federal officials are worried that the reach of extremism and the potential for homegrown attacks on U.S. soil are increasing.
"The threat has really morphed," says Ralph Boelter, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Minneapolis.
"It's morphed from being primarily an Al-Qaida-centered threat to something that is really much, much more than that," Boelter added.
Her faith onstage
For Ahmed, a petite, bespectacled woman with a take-charge attitude, the battle unfolds quietly in and around dimly lit meeting rooms of the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque. It's there, in the shadow of the towering Cedar-Riverside apartment complex near downtown Minneapolis, where she volunteers as youth director and strives to reinforce a peaceful interpretation of her faith.
One recent Sunday morning, Ahmed and more than 70 teenagers, parents and grandparents sat in the prayer hall watching three teenage boys perform a one-act play. Ahmed, a sophomore at Metro State University who has never seen her parents' homeland of Somalia, wrote the script when she realized Somali-Americans from Minnesota were answering the call of jihad.
The play is short, but one theme is clear: Be wary of extremism.
Ahmed beamed as the young actors brought her characters to life.
One boy, the religious fanatic, rejects anything Western as sinful. Dressed in a floor-length white tunic he mutters "haraam, haraam," which means "forbidden, forbidden," at everything he sees.
Another boy, dubbed the "mystic," sees himself as a Muslim, yet dabbles in drugs and sleeps away his days.
When the fanatic spots the mystic in an oversized jacket and jeans, he jumps back, holds up his hands as if to shield himself from evil and denounces the mystic as an infidel.
Just then, a man playing the role of a "moderate" Muslim appears. A college student with a part-time job who is active in his mosque, he's comfortable in a chemise or a hoodie.
The moderate scolds the fanatic for misinterpreting the faith. He tells him he shouldn't distort Islam or call people "non-Muslims" just because he might know a few things about the religion.
It's a critical moment -- the essence of the play.
"It's like what Al-Shabaab is doing right now," Ahmed whispers. "They're just killing people for no reason."
As the play ended, Abdirahman Hassan, the actor who played the mystic, stepped to the podium. Unlike his character, he is an exemplary young Muslim, receiving an award for completing the Qur'an.
"Our youth, some of them misunderstood Islam,'' Hassan said. "...We have to step up."
As Ahmed works the mosque, Bihi hits the streets of Cedar-Riverside, home to the largest concentration of Somali immigrants in the country -- at least 7,000.
There, in the bustling neighborhood dubbed "Little Mogadishu," he's laying the groundwork with Somali elders, merchants and others to find mentors and create opportunities for teenagers struggling to establish an identity in a new and often confusing land.
"The missing kids, I can't get them back," says Bihi, head of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center, a grassroots group. "But what we can do is stop any more from going over there and dying."
One recent day, Bihi stood before 16 boys who play for the Halgan United soccer team. "What is on your minds?" he asked.
They spoke of their passion for soccer and need to find practice fields. They spoke, too, of fears -- of being harassed by thugs and gang members.
"After school, we are not feeling safe," Mohamud Hussein, 16, said. "We need activities and a place to go instead of hanging out outside."
Bihi promised to help. Then he shared two personal stories. The first was his.
He left Somalia for Egypt and later the United States when he was just 17. He was on his own in a strange and intimidating country. But he worked hard to build a life. "I was like you," he told the boys. "I see myself in you."
The second story was about his nephew, Burhan, who left refugee camps in Kenya and came to Minnesota with his mother as a toddler.
Burhan was a mother's dream: He excelled in school and steered clear of trouble. While some Somali boys roamed the streets, Burhan memorized the Qur'an and spent free time at the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center not far from the apartment where he and his mother lived. Often, Bihi says, friends and neighbors complimented the family about the boy. There was no reason, it seemed, to worry.
But one afternoon in November 2008, Burhan didn't come home. In days, his distraught mother learned he was among local Somalis lured to the homeland by Al-Shabaab.
Months later, Burhan was dead. His heartbroken family was told by friends in Somalia that the boy, disillusioned and homesick, was shot in the head after refusing an order.
He died the day before his high school class in Minneapolis graduated. He was only 18.
"Don't let anybody get into your mind with what they are doing," Bihi tells the boys. "You are the best."
Nine months have passed since Burhan's body was buried somewhere in Somalia's ruins. But his indoctrination and death still gnaw at his uncle, who traveled to Kenya in 1993 to bring his sister and the boy to the United States.
It's also what drives him to fight back.
Who got inside Burhan's head and how? Was there something Bihi should have seen or said?
Over the months, Bihi, a wiry man who gets by on little sleep, has logged hundreds of hours at his dining room table searching Somali websites on his laptop for clues that might provide answers.
"My wife, sometimes she gets up at 4 in the morning and I'm here," he said. "She thinks I'm crazy."
He joked that she may be right.
Still, the better he knows the enemy and their tactics, the better his chances of preventing other young Somalis from repeating Burhan's mistake.
"I'm looking for their weaknesses," he said of Al-Shabaab.
On a recent night, as his two young daughters, Asha and Jamila, played nearby, Bihi scrolled through Somali websites, stopping to watch Al-Shabaab training videos and monitor propaganda and speeches. In one video, Al-Shabaab recruits jumped from a moving truck and began firing live rounds into the brush in a mock ambush. In another, they took sledgehammers to prized Somali shrines and publicly whipped several men caught smoking hashish.
As Bihi kept searching, he locked in on a find: Crippled by the deaths of young jihadists, Al-Shabaab was now recruiting older men to fill its ranks.
"They are running out of the youth," Bihi says.
It's a nugget of information he'll take to the streets and coffee shops come morning.
"It's a deadly war," Bihi says, "and there is a constant need to be ahead of the competition."
'Chosen to do this'
While other local Somalis were immersed last spring in the mystery of those who left, Ahmed was oblivious. Even when her imam, who consistently preaches a non-violent view of the faith, denounced Al-Shabaab's message, she didn't give it much thought.
But then young men, many about her age, started dying. By midsummer, most everybody from Minneapolis to Mogadishu was paying attention.
"I knew what was going on and I felt like I could have a say in it," she says.
Within days she condemned the extremist mind-set of some teenagers while speaking at a conference of Muslim leaders. Soon after, she wrote the play.
Next, she published articles in the mosque newspaper about the dangers of radicalism. At almost every opportunity, from lunches with teens to youth events at Dar Al-Hijrah, she promotes peace.
"I feel I've been chosen to do this," Ahmed said.
At times, she has grown angry and discouraged. "Preventing this is a war itself," she says. But, she added, "I don't want to give up, because if I give up I'm creating another corner for [radicals] to enter through."
A familiar fight
The afternoon sun beats down on slushy sidewalks of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood as Ahmed and a friend hike the main drag.
Their mission is to post fliers promoting the 2010 census. But as they near a shop where young men are known to loiter and peddle drugs, Ahmed spots trouble.
A boy she knows is standing next to older teenagers in the store's doorway.
Why aren't you in school?, Ahmed wants to know, calling out to him in Somali.
I was, he says, but it ended at 1 o'clock.
Ahmed is skeptical.
As the boy slinks into the doorway, Ahmed tells him, "I'll be back."
She shakes her head as she walks away. "I've known him since he was knee-high," she says. "Now he's hanging out with the wrong crew."
It's an all-too-common story, and it illustrates the challenge Ahmed and Bihi face. Many Somali-American teenagers, whose parents grew up in East Africa, find themselves adrift and without much guidance as they work to adapt and succeed in a new world. Many are growing up without fathers -- casualties of the war.
On this day, Ahmed and the boy cross paths again an hour later at a mall. Once again, Ahmed zeroes in.
What are you doing? What school do you attend? What grade are you in?
With a toothpick dangling from his lip and his hands buried in his pants pockets, the boy mumbles one-word answers. The conversation ends with a plea. "Stay in school," Ahmed says. "Be safe."
The boy briefly holds her gaze before turning back to the older teens.
Who knows if her words will sink in?
A message in a movie
The Augsburg College gymnasium is filling up fast as Abdirizak Bihi and a half-dozen boys from the Halgan soccer team take their seats.
For the past month, Bihi has watched them compete in an indoor league and helped them knock on doors at Somali businesses to raise money for a tournament. Along the way, he has gently but firmly reminded them of the dangers of extremism and how Al-Shabaab stole his nephew.
He has told them of the "unbearable" heartache his sister has endured in the months since losing her son, and of the lost potential of the other local Somalis recruited by Al-Shabaab.
He has spoken, too, of his most haunting memory: seeing one grieving mother hopelessly search her house, room by room, looking for her boy after discovering a photograph of his bloody corpse on the Internet. Her son had been killed in Mogadishu that morning.
"That is a trauma," Bihi says, "that I will never, ever forget."
Now, on this Saturday in early March, it's time for the boys to see and feel for themselves.
Filmmaker Eric Howell introduces "Ana's Playground," a short film shot in Cedar-Riverside in November 2008 that shows how children are indoctrinated into war.
The story centers on an 11-year-old girl and her friends who play soccer in a bleak neighborhood in an anonymous, war-torn country. The tension builds when the soccer ball sails over a fence and into a courtyard guarded by a sniper.
After losing a coin flip, Ana sneaks through an opening in the fence and inches her way to the ball. Within seconds, the sniper, standing at a window of a nearby high-rise, opens fire. Terrified, Ana scrambles for cover. More shots ring out but she keeps going, dodging bullets as she moves forward. Suddenly, only a few feet from the ball, she trips and falls.
She pauses, gets up, grabs the ball and starts to walk away. The sniper fires again, but deliberately misses, hitting a nearby statue to let her know that she's free to go.
With ball in hand, she turns, looks up and salutes. The sniper, with the audio of a soccer game echoing from a radio behind him, steps into view and returns the salute. He is just a teenager.
Suddenly, a blast echoes across the courtyard. Ana turns to see her friends cheering: They've just fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the spot where the sniper stood, killing him.
After the film ends, an audience member asks Howell why he chose to have the sniper killed, rather than end the movie with Ana and the gunman saluting each other.
"What's worse than seeing a child be killed is seeing a child become a killer," Howell said. "Everything about it is wrong."
That's Bihi's message, too.
"This is really what the kids [in Somalia] go through," Bihi tells the Halgan players afterward in the lobby. "The guy shooting, he was a young man. He was 18, just like Burhan."
The boys are quiet. Some were only small boys when they left Somalia, but say they remember the violence of war.
"Sometimes we heard shots and then we ran," said Abdullahi Yusuf, 15.
Before they exit the gym, Bihi approaches Yusuf and poses a question.
What if you were in that position, and "either you have to be Ana, and be killed, or you have to be the shooter?"
Yusuf thinks for only a moment.
"No," he says softly, "I don't want to be either one of them."
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