Fearing for his life and still mourning his murdered family, Liban Hussein fled Mogadishu in 2009 and eventually found refuge a world away in the Twin Cities.

But Hussein didn't follow the route of most Somali refugees, who live in overcrowded camps in Kenya or other neighboring countries and wait months, even years, for a travel visa.

Instead, he resorted to an option that an increasing number of desperate Somalis bound for Minnesota are choosing: He paid underground operatives $10,000 to smuggle him to America. The smugglers, relying on forged documents and bribes, passed Hussein by air and land through 11 countries, stopping everywhere from Dubai to Moscow to Havana.

Finally they got him to Tijuana, where he went to the nearby U.S. border and asked for asylum.

"It's a free-market solution to a refugee processing backlog," said Kim Hunter, a local immigration attorney who represents Hussein and about a dozen others smuggled into this country.

The possibility that the smuggling network could also bring terrorists into the United States has some officials worried.

One Los Angeles law office interviewed 200 Somalis smuggled into the United States in 2010 alone.

Many of them eventually reach Minnesota, home to the nation's largest Somali immigrant population. Emily Good, an official with Advocates for Human Rights, a Minneapolis group, said she saw 19 such cases in the past year involving Somalis and a few Ethiopians

Stuck in 'horrific' camps

Decades of strife have left Somalia in chaos and have driven out 575,000 refugees, according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. Spurring the exodus is the rise of Al-Shabab, a group with extremist Islamic views and brutal methods of enforcing them.

Many Somalis have fled to Kenya's Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp with more than 300,000 people. "The conditions are horrific, and the chances of getting out are minuscule," said James Duff Lyall, an attorney with the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project in California.

In 2009, Somalis were the third-largest group of asylum applicants in the industrialized world, with more than 22,000 claims.

Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said applicants can wait in camps for years with no assurance they'll get into the country of their choice.

"Sometimes they decide that smuggling is the best shot," said Meissner, now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

Dick Zonneveld, a St. Paul immigration attorney, recently taught a law class on Somali immigration issues. "Many times their only way to travel to the United States is illegally with false papers," he said.

Previously, amnesty seekers were detained, sometimes for a long time at a high cost, until given asylum. But in January 2010, U.S. policy changed to release them if they have a "credible fear" of persecution and can stay with friends or family until a final court decision.

Nationally, the number of Somali asylum seekers found to have a "credible fear" more than doubled in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, from 186 in 2009 to 394 in 2010, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Some officials worry terrorists could slip through that crack.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said he's concerned about Al-Shabab's "alliance to Al-Qaida." McCaul, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence, information sharing and terrorism risk assessment, cited the federal conviction last year of Anthony Tracy, a Virginia man who admitted selling false travel documents while in Kenya to 272 Somalis so they could be smuggled into the United States.

"My biggest concern is, 'Where are they now?'" McCaul said, adding that authorities are trying to locate them.

Court documents in the case against Tracy mention a Somali native identified only as K.A., whom he allegedly helped and who is believed to now be in Minnesota. The FBI asserts that at least 20 young Somali-Americans left the Twin Cities to fight for Al-Shabab. "If they come back to the United States, that is obviously of grave concern," McCaul said.

Al-Shabab's role as an internal U.S. threat is open to debate. "Experts say there are links between individual Al-Shabab leaders and individual members of Al-Qaida, but any organizational linkage between the two groups is weak, if it exists at all," the Council on Foreign Relations reported in July. It noted, however, that Al-Shabab took credit for bombings that killed more than 70 people in Uganda during the World Cup in July.

Lucky to be alive

Liban Hussein said his Al-Shabab nightmare began in 2008, when the group sent his mother a death threat and ordered her to close the video store where the family showed movies on a widescreen TV. Al-Shabab told them movies were against Muslim faith. But Hussein's mother would not close the store.

Soon after, he said, Al-Shabab operatives showed up toting AK-47s. They sent the children watching a film away, and then attacked Hussein and his family. First, they held Hussein down and smashed his fingers with a hammer. Then they splashed gas around the store and set it ablaze, burning over 40 percent of his body and killing his mother and two brothers.

Later, they came to the hospital where Hussein had been brought, to try to finish him off. They killed his doctor and wounded his uncle. Hussein said he was spared only because responding police killed the gunmen.

After they again tried to kill Hussein at the hospital, his uncle found smugglers who got him a phony Kenyan passport. A smuggler then flew with him to Djibouti, a neighboring country, then on to Dubai, Russia, and Cuba -- countries where the smuggler had connections, knew he could bribe officials or knew documents weren't checked as thoroughly.

Hussein said that in Havana he protested because he thought he was being smuggled to western Europe, but the smuggler told him his only viable option was America.

The first smuggler then handed Hussein off to a second who took him to Ecuador, Colombia and Nicaragua. There, the second smuggler handed him off to "Sammy," someone with whom Minnesota lawyers say many of their clients have dealt.

Hussein and Sammy drove to Honduras, Guatemala and then Mexico. Immigration authorities there detained Hussein for 10 days, then released him with a letter saying he had 30 days to leave the country. He bought a plane ticket and flew to Tijuana, and then went to the United States border, where he asked for asylum.

American authorities detained him in the Mira Loma, Calif., detention center for four months before his fears of persecution were deemed credible. A former neighbor of his in Somalia, now living in Eagan, said Hussein could come live with him, so authorities released Hussein, and he arrived in the Twin Cities in February.

In September, he made his asylum case to a U.S. immigration judge in Bloomington. He now awaits a decision. In November, he got a work permit and went to South Sioux City, Neb., for a job in a meat packing plant. His lawyer, Kim Hunter, says she is optimistic he'll win asylum. "It's a very clear example of religious-based persecution," she said. Something else is very clear to Hussein:

"I'm lucky I'm still alive," he said.

randy.furst@startribune.com • 612-673-7382 allie.shah@startribune.com • 612-673-4488