A federal grand jury in St. Paul is investigating a group of Somali-Americans who were allegedly conspiring to join terrorists fighting in Syria, according to sources with direct knowledge of the probe.

The proceedings, which have been going on all summer, appear to be centered on trying to find out who is behind efforts to convince 20 to 30 people that they should leave Minnesota to fight in the Middle East. That question has stymied federal agents for the last year as they have struggled to build inroads and trust with the Muslim community in the Twin Cities in order to cut off a new pipeline of recruits.

Seven years ago, about two dozen young Somali men from Minnesota were recruited to fight in Somalia with another terrorist group, Al-Shabab. As many as nine were reported killed, and after a series of indictments and high-profile convictions, federal authorities and community leaders believed that the recruiting had stopped.

Instead, it has shifted to a new region.

In June, investigators stopped a Somali teen just before he boarded a plane at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, his final destination believed to be Syria.

But federal authorities say upward of a dozen Somali men and three women from Minnesota have fled the country to fight alongside or aid extremists in the Middle East. They estimate as many as 100 Americans have gone to Syria and Iraq to join insurgents whose brutality, including mass executions and beheadings of American journalists, has prompted the U.S. and other countries to consider airstrikes against the movement. The departures also have heightened fears that some may try to return to carry out attacks in the U.S.

In late August, a Minnesota man became the first American recruit confirmed to have died while fighting in the Syria-Iraq area with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) forces. A second Minnesota man is believed to have been killed in the same battle.

Earlier this month, a 19-year-old Somali woman from St. Paul, along with two other Minnesota women, left the state. A relative of the 19-year-old said she is now in Syria, reportedly aiding fighters there.

Arrested at airport

Early this summer, FBI agents and prosecutors questioned the father of a Somali teen about his son's activities prior to the teen being arrested last spring at the airport. The youth was apprehended at the gate, as he prepared to board a plane. Agents reportedly made it clear to the family that they were less interested in the son's involvement than in who recruited him.

The boy's father had dropped his son off at school and hours later he was contacted by FBI agents, who told him they had picked his son up at the airport. Sometime between the school drop-off and the arrest, the boy had changed clothes and showed up at the airport with a suitcase, according to sources.

The investigation is moving slowly because many of those subpoenaed are refusing to talk and have been instructed to invoke their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, multiple sources said.

Banned from mosque

The group under investigation is mostly composed of young Somalis who have been frequenting the Al Farooq Youth and Family Center and mosque in Bloomington. There, they may have fallen under the influence of Amir Meshal, a 31-year-old American of Egyptian descent who allegedly spoke often to them about joining in a jihad, those sources said.

Meshal, whose alleged actions at the mosque were reported in June to the FBI, was already well-known to counterterrorism agents. In 2007, agents arrested him in Kenya after he fled Mogadishu, Somalia's capital. He was accused of having received weapons training in an Al-Qaida camp and of serving as a translator for the terrorist group's leaders in Somalia, according to court documents.

Meshal was held without charges and questioned by agents for four months in Kenya and Ethiopia. After being released, he later sued the FBI for civil rights violations. The case was dismissed.

Hyder Aziz, the director of the Bloomington mosque, said he was so concerned about Meshal's interactions with the youth there that he went to police in early June and obtained a no-trespass order against him.

Aziz said a reliable person in the community told mosque leaders about an interaction he had with Meshal, in which Meshal expressed "extremist views."

"I made a decision that he needs to be removed from the premises," Aziz said, adding, "I will call police if he ever shows up and they will arrest him."

The trespassing order states: "We have concerns about Meshal interacting with our youth."

Bloomington Deputy Police Chief Rick Hart told the Star Tribune that the complaint was referred "right away" to the local Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Two people who attended the mosque have disappeared and are believed to be in Syria — the 19-year-old Somali woman from St. Paul and Abdi Mohamed Nur, 20. Nur played basketball and attended prayers at Al Farooq, and disappeared around the same time the no-trespassing order was issued, said Jordan Kushner, an attorney representing the mosque.

Soon after Bloomington police alerted the local Joint Terrorism Task Force, the Eden Prairie house Meshal was living in with his wife and children was put up for sale. Meshal, whose whereabouts are unknown, does not have a criminal history in Minnesota, records show. He is originally from New Jersey.

'Have to work together'

For years, the Somali relationship with federal authorities in Minnesota has been tenuous, at best. Internally, Somali community leaders remain at odds among themselves on how to best work with agents and prosecutors.

"The relationship between our community and law enforcement has been, at times, very tense and full of suspicion," said Omar Jamal, director of the St. Paul-based nonprofit American Friends of Somalia and a longtime voice in the local Somali community. "We're improving, but we're not there yet. Both sides are coming to realize that in order to stop these recruitments, we have to work together. One side can't accomplish the task without the other."

A federal grand jury's role is to determine if a person will be charged with a serious federal crime. There is no judge presiding over proceedings, and jury deliberations are conducted in secret.

The grand jury proceedings have triggered a new sense of urgency among community leaders to engage families who have lost their children to terrorist recruiting. They are now urging these families to speak publicly about their experiences in the hopes of preventing other families from experiencing the same pain.

"We are the victims of this violent extremism so we have to stand up and lead these kinds of efforts," said Hashi Shafi, director of the Somali Action Alliance in Minneapolis. He added that within the next two weeks there will be a Somali town hall meeting featuring the families who've been personally affected by the recruiting.

"I've witnessed many people who want to speak up, but they're scared," Shafi said. "We don't want to continue that fear."

Shafi said that leaders have begun holding meetings at the Hennepin County Sheriff's Department with the civil liberties division of the Department of Homeland Security; an upcoming meeting is being planned with local officers from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration and airport administrators.

U.S. Attorney Andy Luger has initiated a standing dinner meeting in which he meets every six weeks with more than a dozen imams to hear their concerns. "I have personally made it a priority to develop strong personal and professional relationships with leaders in the Somali community," Luger said in an interview. "We are intent on stopping those who seek to recruit Somali and other youth into a life of crime, violence and terror. The imams and other community leaders with whom we are working are admirable and hardworking citizens committed to this task. They have our full respect and support."

paul.mcenroe@startribune.com • 612-673-1745

ashah@startribune.com • 612-673-4888