A 19-year old Somali woman from St. Paul left for Syria two weeks ago to aid fighters for a terrorist group, according to a family member with direct knowledge of her departure. Her disappearance marks the first time that family members have confirmed that a Somali-American woman has left the country to support terrorists in the Middle East.
The woman used a borrowed passport that her family believes was provided by a recruiter, according to a relative who spoke Wednesday to the Star Tribune on condition that his identity — and hers — be withheld. He said that the family found a copy of the passport used by the woman to leave the country, reportedly on Aug. 23. The next night, the family contacted the FBI and police to report her missing, and told authorities the identities of those they believe recruited her locally.
He said the FBI told the family that two other local women had also gone to Syria.
U.S. Sen. Al Franken said over the weekend that the FBI has told his office “in the nature of about a dozen” people from Minnesota have left the country to join the terror group operating in Syria.
Douglas McAuthur McCain, who attended Robbinsdale Cooper High School in New Hope, was the first American to die while fighting for the terror group, called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Unconfirmed reports say another man who left Minneapolis two years ago died in the same battle.
Now, local Somali leaders say, women are also being targeted by recruiters.
“We’ve been hearing very recently that there’s a huge concern in the community of even young women leaving,” said Mohamud Noor, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota. It may have become easier to recruit women because law enforcement has been focusing on young men leaving, he said.
“There have been other young women who’ve left from Europe,” Noor added.
The FBI declined to comment on the case.
The woman’s family told FBI agents the names of several people who they believe were involved in recruiting the woman over the last nine months to a year, according to the relative. One of the alleged recruiters is a local woman who was said to be married to a white man who was fighting with terrorists in the Syria-Iraq region, and the woman was believed to be planning to join her husband.
The missing woman contacted her family about a week after she left Minnesota. Coincidentally, the owner of the passport used by the missing woman did not report that the document was missing for about a week, the relative said.
The family has not been updated about the investigation since the woman was reported missing, adding frustration to its anxiety about her safety. They wonder whether those who aided her departure will be held accountable.
“How many more kids have to die before we do something about it?” the relative asked. “Those animals who are taking our children are what we’re concerned about. We love this country more than anything else. I love America. We don’t want to see anything bad happen here. This is the most dangerous thing happening to this country.”
Franken on Wednesday asked the Justice Department to commit resources to address the threat by Americans, including Minnesotans, who have traveled to the Middle East to fight with ISIL.
In the letter, Franken also said that he was “troubled” by President Obama’s recent statement that his administration had not yet put together a comprehensive strategy to address the growing threat posed by ISIL.
“We must act diligently and responsibly to prevent Americans from taking up arms with ISIL, or from re-entering our country if they do. This requires that the Justice Department use all relevant legal authorities and all appropriate resources at its disposal,” the letter said.
Neither the Justice Department nor the White House had any immediate response to Franken’s letter.
Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minneapolis and the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, said Wednesday he believes Obama is right in keeping U.S. soldiers out of Iraq.
“ISIL is not a band of thugs, they’re an army,” he said. “They look forward to a response that kills civilians because then they will extort it for recruiting purposes.”
Since 2007, two distinct waves of Somali teenage boys and young men have been recruited from Minnesota to fight with terrorists based in Somalia. In all, about two dozen were confirmed as successfully reaching Somalia to join the ranks of Al-Shabab — an Al-Qaida-linked force trying to overthrow the U.S.-backed government in that country.
The woman who recently left for Syria did not have a job and was planning to attend St. Paul College to study nursing, the relative said.
“She wanted to work in a hospital and be an RN,” the relative said.
He said that she reportedly called her family twice about a week after she left — once from Turkey and soon after from Syria, according to the relative. The relative said that she notified her family of where she was, including the name of the town she was staying in. She also sent several photos from her smartphone showing where she was living.
Star Tribune staff writer Allison Sherry contributed to this report