Some of the young men got a head start on racking up college credits in high school. Some juggled college and jobs that helped them chip in for family budgets. Some worshiped NBA stars and caught college-night games at Target Center.
In some ways, the six Minneapolis men facing federal charges over an alleged attempt to join overseas militants don’t seem to fit a stereotypical profile of the radical recruit: the adrift high school dropout with tenuous links to the mainstream community.
Defense attorneys and supporters have argued that the men are unlikely candidates to join the violent fight waged by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. In the Somali-American community, where some leaders have long sounded alarms about high dropout rates and youth joblessness, the charges against a once promising group of young men have brought consternation.
“I was shocked,” said Ahmed Nur, a student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, which five of the men attended at some point. “These guys, they are a good group of people. You’d never think they would do something like that.”
Still others caution that school success and community connections don’t always translate to a robust sense of belonging in a wider society that can be less-than-accepting of young Somali men. And some experts say radical groups like ISIL are increasingly tailoring their propaganda to a diverse audience in the West: from the disaffected and the underprivileged to the college-educated and the driven. As a result, the idea of the typical recruit is becoming more of a myth than ever.
The six men, ages 19 to 21, are facing federal charges that could put them in prison for more than a decade. Last week, a Minneapolis federal judge decided that Adnan Farah, Guled Omar, Hanad Musse and Zacharia Abdurahman will remain in detention pending trial. Two other men, Farah’s brother, Mohamed, and Abdirahman Daud, were arrested in San Diego, allegedly on their way to the Middle East via Mexico.
A good student
The accounts of defense attorneys and friends offer glimpses of young people with much going for them.
Abdurahman was pursuing a degree in computer support and network administration. In court last week, his defense attorney described him as a 19-year-old who held down several jobs, took on a yearlong technology internship at Hennepin County Medical Center and scraped together money to send to relatives living in Kenya. His client recently proposed to a young woman, and the two plan to marry after they finish community college.
The attorney representing Musse, 19, handed out copies of his client’s 12th-grade report card to the judge and an FBI agent testifying about the case.
“He’s a good student, isn’t he?” the attorney asked the agent.
Omar, whom the FBI singled out at a news conference as particularly committed to the group’s alleged plot, juggled a pre-nursing major and a job as a security guard that helped him support his single mother and younger siblings.
On the MCTC campus, his friend Nur said Omar, 20, split his time among classes, work and home, with the occasional pickup basketball game. Conversations revolved around schoolwork and sports, said Nur, who landed a job as a security guard at a company where Omar worked, with his help. With some of the other men facing charges, Omar played basketball at the downtown YMCA, loved Timberwolves rookie Andrew Wiggins and often tried to catch Wednesday $5-admission College Night games at Target Center.
Prosecutors, however, paint a picture of young men determined to leave behind those lives. They say most men had made previous attempts to travel overseas, attempts that were thwarted by federal agents or their families. They still wanted to try again. At least one had maintained a Facebook account sprinkled with images of extremist leaders and propaganda. Another drained his student loan account before attempting to leave the country.
In a conversation recorded by the FBI’s informant, Daud acknowledged that he might end up in jail, and didn’t care.
“I’m through with America,” Mohamed Farah, 21, agreed. “Burn my ID.”
Ahmed Samatar, a Somali-born Macalester College professor who studies global politics and Somali issues, says young people on the margins of Western society might seem like a prime audience for the messaging of groups like ISIL. But for the children of immigrant families, graduating from high school and enrolling in community college are often just the first steps in finding their way in the mainstream community; they can belie a “deeper alienation.”
“Even in that group, there can be a sense of an inner vacuum or a lack of sense of direction that might not be visible from the outside,” Samatar said. “American society is a very complex, fast-paced society to navigate. Even after 41 years, I am still adjusting.”
Minneapolis Council Member Abdi Warsame, the Twin Cities’ highest-ranking Somali-American official, said many young people born to parents who fled Somalia don’t have a deep understanding of their past. They don’t have memories of struggle in Somalia or see the U.S. as a place of refuge.
Even young people who grow up speaking English and enjoying American sports, food and movies don’t necessarily feel accepted.
“I know people are saying: ‘These people had jobs,’ ” Warsame said of the six men. But, he adds, “They were not brilliant academics. They were not high-achievers. They were just average, inner-city youth who didn’t feel a place in mainstream society.”
In court, Abdurahman’s attorney noted his client — like many Somalis — is frequently called names and harassed on the street. Back at South High School, some of the men were caught in racially charged tensions with fellow students that culminated in a 2013 cafeteria fight involving some 200 teens.
A new study focused on terrorist recruitment in the Twin Cities found that many members of Minneapolis’ Somali community said their names and traditional dress prompt frequent police stops and extra scrutiny at the airport and other public places. The University of Southern California researchers, part of a center that focuses on terrorism and homeland security, say that sense of isolation provides an opening for terrorist groups, which sell messages of community and unification under a shared cause.
In any case, said William Braniff, executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, ISIL has put an innovative spin on radical propaganda to target a more diverse Western audience than ever. In the group’s messaging, individual fighters do the talking, not the self-styled Islamic scholars Al-Qaida favored. These fighters — with voices ranging from conversational to cerebral to defiant — are churning out “very personal, very intimate, very tailored propaganda” via social media, Braniff said.
For the disaffected, the recruitment touts a chance to be a part of a “grand adventure” that would lend a sense of self and purpose. For those integrated into Western society, the messages might play on a sense of guilt as they highlight the plight of impoverished Muslims in countries with oppressive regimes, Braniff said. “Meanwhile, you’re sipping a cappuccino and wearing your Adidas,” he added. “How can you stand to live in such luxury?”
Community leaders say that programs steering young people to graduation, college and jobs remain the best antidote to recruitment. In 2014, about half of students of Somali and other African descent graduated on time from Minneapolis Public Schools, compared with more than 70 percent of white students.
“Those vulnerabilities are still there,” said Samatar.
He added that it’s important his community doesn’t just look to state and local institutions alone, but also engages in some internal soul-searching: “The family, the mosques, the community centers — that’s where the real battle begins.”
Staff writer Randy Furst contributed to this report.