When Dayib Ahmed Abdi and his family arrived in the United States in 1996, his son Abdifatah already had an independent streak. The family settled in Minnesota along with thousands of other refugees from Somali’s civil war and Abdifatah, known also as Abdirahman Muhumed, went in his own direction.
He frequented gyms, lifted weights and played basketball. He wasn’t particularly religious. He liked going out to night clubs and was considered handsome, “a heartthrob,” his father said. Abdifatah ended up marrying three times, having eight children in all. His father hoped he would join the military.
Late last year, Abdifatah, 29, abruptly left his families, and traveled to Britain, then Syria, joining the radical militants of the Islamic State as they began sweeping across parts of Syria and Iraq. He posted photographs to Facebook and elsewhere earlier this year, showing him holding the Quran and AK-47s. In August, he was reportedly killed in Syria.
He was the second American to die there.
“I was very sad when I heard it. ‘Why he would go to an Arab land?’ I asked myself,” Abdi told VOA. “They [Arab countries] don’t help us; instead the United States helped us. ‘Why he chose to leave this good land?’ I asked. I was very unhappy.
“What I would say to the crazy youth who went to the Arab countries for harmful things is they are wrong,” he said. “This is like madness.”
The issue of Americans being radicalized, recruited to fight in the cause of radical Islamic terror groups, is capturing national attention, sowing fear that some could return unnoticed to commit attacks at home. With more than 100 Americans having traveled to Syria since 2011, President Barack Obama gave open voice to those fears on September 10: “Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”
Of those who have traveled to Syria, at least 13 Somalis were from Minnesota, according to a VOA tally, a number that includes at least two girls. Two more Somali girls, and a Sudanese girl, all from the Denver area, were stopped in Germany on October 19, as they headed to Syria.
For Minnesota’s Somali community, the largest in the United States, this isn’t a new phenomenon: between 2007 and 2010 some two dozen men traveled to Somalia to fight “jihad” there. As before, the issue is bringing unwanted scrutiny from the FBI and local police; a federal grand jury is nearing the end of its investigation into the recruiting and who’s responsible.
The Somali community’s experience is a window: into how difficult it is to counter radicalization; into the mistrust and alienation that recruiters thrive on to draw people to radical jihad: in Somalia, Syria or elsewhere.
“Here are all the things against us: immigrant, black, Muslim,” said Fartun Weli, a 43-year-old founder of a Minneapolis non-profit organization helping Somali women.
“We always feel like someone is watching us… If someone is always suspicious about you and you have no other opportunities, what are you going to do?” she asked. “You’re going to say: ‘why am I here?’ You’re being accused so much, you say ‘either way I will never satisfy these guys, so maybe I should I just join (the terrorists).’”
Over the past two decades, wracked by civil war, foreign invasions, famine, warring clans, extremist ideologies and international indifference, Somalia has become the poster child for failed states.
With the government’s collapse in 1991 and the country’s descent into chaos, Somalis fled en masse, to refugee camps in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen, then onto Europe and North America. More than 1.5 million scattered around the world. More than 50,000 now live in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region.
For many, Minnesota was welcoming, but alien, and for the vast majority of the Somali community, adaptation has come slowly. Many have thrived, becoming eager entrepreneurs, activists, academics or business leaders, helping to turn three shopping malls in Minneapolis into hubs of Somali commerce and culture.
But Somali families have suffered disproportionately from unemployment, poverty, mental health problems and crime. Community activists estimate as many as 3,000 Somali men may be in the criminal justice system—under arrest, imprisoned, on parole. Some 20 percent of Somalis lack jobs. Another estimate based on U.S. Census data found only 50 percent of working-age Somalis had jobs.
Like many Muslim groups in the United States, Somalis also faced hard suspicion after the September 11, 2001, attacks.
“Kids are being recruited. Yes, this is a fact. What are we going to do about it? We have to talk about the root causes that makes Somali kids vulnerable…. how do we fight poverty, bad school systems, the lack of opportunities,” Weli said. “The one thing we need to do is, if being Muslim can make us the worst victim in the United States, we have to make sure there are opportunities created for our community to exit poverty.”
For younger Somalis thrown into public school systems and dense neighborhoods like Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside, protection from outsiders came from gangs, like the “Somali Hot Boyz” and “Madhibaan with Attitude.”
Gangs— stubbornly difficult to penetrate by local police, a function of the community’s mistrust— are key to recruitment, said Waheid Siraach, a sergeant with the Metro Transit Police and founder of the Somali American Police Association.
A Somali who gets caught up in a gang, lands in jail and then released is often trapped, Siraach said: ostracized by the larger community, unable to find work due to a criminal record, a prime target for recruiters peddling a glorious message of battlefield or religious glory. Several of the men who ended up in Somalia between 2007 and 2010 had criminal records.
“They need to elevate the response (to gangs) to the level of a national security issue,” he said. Recruiters for Islamist groups “are very sophisticated people. They are brainwashing people, preying on them, looking for vulnerable people, with troubled family life, crime record…. When you don’t have anything to lose, you’re an easy target.”
At the point when a young person is vulnerable, it can take as little as two to six months for him to be radicalized, persuaded to travel to Somalia or Syria, to fight for jihad or adhere to radical interpretations of Islam, said Bob Fletcher, a former St. Paul police commander who now runs trainings on Somali cultural issues.
“We have an entire spectrum of kids— good kids, bad kids— but the one common denominator is an internal sense of disenfranchisement,” he said. “That is a term that applies to most kids.”
In Syria, “no longer are they being recruited to fight against a government, they are being recruited to come and build a new society, a new government, infrastructure,” Fletcher said. “Kids are going … because they earnestly believe it’s the right thing to do because of their religion.”
Somalis aren’t the only group in the United States who are being recruited. And this isn’t the first time the Somali community has grappled with young people being radicalized and recruited into Islamist causes.
In 2006, an alliance of Islamic organizations threatened to overrun the fragile, internationally backed government in the capital, Mogadishu. At the forefront of the alliance, and the fighting, was Al-Shabab, a group made up of mainly younger men espousing an extreme vision of Islamic law that eventually linked up with al-Qaida. Ethiopia, fearing an Islamic state next door, invaded with backing from the United States.
To fight the Ethiopians, the cry for volunteers went out among Somali diaspora communities, including in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Many went to fight for Al-Shabab. Some leaders explicitly called the fight “jihad.” Nearly two dozen Somali men answered the call, such as Shirwa Ahmed, a 27-year-old Minnesotan who graduated from Minneapolis’ Roosevelt High School.
In October 2008, Ahmed killed himself in an attack in Somalia. He was the first ever American suicide bomber.
Between 2007 and 2010, federal agents surveilled mosques in Minnesota, recruited informers and interrogated dozens. Many Somalis complained of harassment or discrimination.
Sheikh Abdirahman Sheikh Omar, of the Abubakar As-Siddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis, was put on a no-fly list in 2008, unfairly, he said. While U.S. officials refuse to say why he was barred from flying, several of the men who joined Al-Shabab worshipped at his mosque.
Sheikh Hassan Jamici, of the Islamic Da’waah Center in St. Paul, said he is loathe to have his children accompany him when he flies.
“I don’t want my kids to see their dad selected and separated from the people, and remove his belts, his shoes, and someone is touching everywhere, including his private parts, and watching me,” Hassan said.
On an early October evening, dozens of Somali men and women, wearing black head caps and brightly colored headscarves and flowing dresses, crowded into a room at the Sabathani Community Center, south of Minneapolis’ downtown, to upbraid and applaud police officials and others, including Minnesota’s U.S. attorney, Andrew Luger, who is trying to overcome this distrust.
“We come from the war. We don’t want our children to go back to the war,” one woman said.
But when Luger pointed out that any Somali who travels to fight for terrorist groups in Somalia, or Islamic State militants, would be prosecuted upon return, several women shook their heads and whispered excitedly among themselves.
“I don’t want people in the community to be afraid of the work we do,” Luger said. “The only way we can stop this (recruiting) is working together, trust one another, continue to talk.”
For many Somalis, though, talking has been accompanied only by a heavy-handed response from police.
Last month, a Somali American man, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for trying to detonate a bomb at a holiday tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon, in November 2010. He was arrested after his parents told the FBI they feared he was becoming radicalized. Later, parents and relatives complained of entrapment, saying Mohamud had been lured into the bomb plot by FBI agents intent on arresting a terrorist.
“They stop you when you’re walking home from your job, ‘So I hear your name is Mohammed and you’re going to that mosque. Is it true that you’re a terrorist?’” said Yassin Mohamed Abdullahi, a 14-year-old studying at the Da’waah Center. “It’s things like that you know that cause this spark of anger, hatred, mistrust in between the two parties … the Somalis and the FBI.”
For the police and the FBI, it’s a fine line to walk. Agents need the cooperation of the Somali community to identify recruiters and turn young people away from radicalization. But they’re also hyper-vigilant to the danger of a homegrown terrorist.
“It’s one thing to say you have nothing to fear from us … there’s a history here of not much being made into an image of threat,” said Peter Erlinder, a St. Paul lawyer who has represented Somali clients. “On the other hand, no one wants to be the agent in the office when there’s a mistake. That’s the dilemma.”
In the video, which appeared this spring on jihadi websites, a voice chanting Quran verses gives way to images of masked, camouflaged men marching with AK-47s and rocket launchers and banners of jihad.
A man then sits cross-legged on sandy soil, reading a message in American-accented English, in rap-style rhyming couplets, peppered with references to Facebook and Arabic, like the word for martyrdom, istishhad:
“This is a message to the youth in the West, a caring brother sends you a friend request, a life full of struggle, a complete test, to choose the following, which is the best,” he reads. “Put your trust in Allah, take your istishhad vest, a lone wolf mission, you know the rest.”
The video ends showing an airline ticket and the words “The next flight to Mogadishu; the only one missing is you.”
It’s one of countless videos circulating through the Internet, with messages honed to the attention, and the ideals, of young people.
The issue has grabbed the attention of federal agencies, not just because of the Somali and Syrian conflicts, but also attacks like the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
“People in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere who want to recruit these young men are very clever,” Luger said in an interview with VOA. “They are reaching out to the hearts of these young kids and are convincing them that they can have a better life, a more meaningful life if they fight with these groups. And we have to do a better job of countering that message.”
The Justice Department, the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Department of Homeland Security recently launched pilot programs in Minneapolis, Boston and Los Angeles, trying to get at the root causes of radicalization, like a lack of jobs or economic opportunity, or families feeling alienated or disconnected. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson heard a litany of complaints from Somali leaders, complaining about racial profiling, during a meeting in Minneapolis on November 7. Like other law enforcement officials, Johnson pleaded for cooperation from the community.
“Help us to help you, in the community. I don’t consider that snitching,” he was quoted as saying. “There is a fine line between suspicious behavior and simply doing things that are part of your heritage and your culture. We don’t want to stoke suspicion and fear.”
Abdi Mohamed Nur, a 20-year-old from Minneapolis who loved basketball, began acting differently this spring after he began attending services at a mosque in neighboring Bloomington. His sister, Ifrah, told VOA that Nur disappeared on May 29 and sent a text message the following day saying he wanted to “join the jihad in Syria in search of paradise.”
“We tried to get the police in Turkey to arrest him at the hotel while the FBI was on its way. He told people the hotel that he didn’t come to the country to get hassled in the hotel,” she said. “He immediately moved out of the hotel.”
In Syria, “it’s a very different narrative than you saw in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia,” said Haris Tarin, Washington director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “Now it’s attracting a different type of folks. It’s not just the really extreme individuals who are ready to die. It’s people who are ready to build on this notion, a false notion, of this new Islamic state.”
What may be the crucible for radicalization, however, is the mosques and the role that religious leaders play in either dissuading or encouraging people to join jihadi movements.
Several years ago, both Sheikh Omar and Sheikh Hassan endorsed the call for jihad, for people to join the fight against the Ethiopians, a call that Hassan maintains was justified.
“To wage jihad against Ethiopia when it invaded the country was obligatory, if there is doubt in anybody’s mind,” Hassan said at a VOA roundtable discussion September 16. “That was a legitimate jihad.”
With the Islamic State, known also as ISIS or ISIL, the message continues to be jihad, but for a cause different from Al-Shabab’s, or even al-Qaida’s: creation of an Islamic state, a caliphate. If Somali religious leaders in Minnesota subscribe to this view, they’re not doing so overtly.
Sheikh Hassan has denied that any worshippers from the Da’wah Center have ended up in Syria. If they did, he said, he and his mosque weren’t responsible.
“The door of my mosque is open for everyone. We don’t ask people when they come, we don’t ask when we open the door: ‘Are you from ISIS or al-Shabab?’ When they leave, we don’t ask them: ‘are you going to al-Shabab or are you going to ISIS?’ We cannot ask,” he told VOA. “Anybody can come. Those who come, as you say, one or two may go, we are not responsible and we don’t tell people to go and kill others. We tell the opposite.”
In 2011, several young men at Sheikh Omar’s mosque — Minnesota’s largest — accused a visiting scholar and other leaders of hypocrisy and of a corrupted interpretation of Islam. One man punched a mosque official in the face, prompting the mosque to call police and ban the men from the building.
This summer, officials at a Bloomington mosque known as the Al-Farooq Youth and Family Center called police about an Egyptian man suspected of trying to recruit youth members. Mosque leaders said they were concerned about the man’s interactions with young people and banned him from the building.
At least two young people who worshipped at Al-Farooq have traveled to Syria in recent months, according to Minnesota media reports. Some parents have told VOA the mosque was to blame for allowing recruiters to gain access to members; mosque officials denied the allegations.
Sheikh Omar said he was surprised to learn that many Somalis were travelling to Syria, and he condemned both the Islamic State and Al-Shabab.
“They are damaging Islam and the face of Islam,” he told VOA.
“Maybe the effects of civil war are in still in the minds of this generation, so when they hear war is going on somewhere they easily respond to go there,” he said.
For the mosques, the problem may lie in the gray area at the intersection of religion, nationalism and violent extremism; that religious leaders aren’t unequivocal when it comes to condemning extremist interpretations of Islam or violent jihad. Jihad can mean “holy war” or it can refer to a person’s spiritual, internal struggle.
“Two things here: First, the Somali community is afraid to fight this when it’s an easy thing to do; they are not meeting their responsibility,” said Abdisalam Kaytoon, a businessman and activist said at a community meeting on September 18. “Secondly, three fundamental elements in kids’ life are not meeting their responsibilities: the school, home and mosques. All three failed the kids.”
“Unless the kind of ideology that says ‘I’m the only Muslim’ is separated from proper Islam, this problem is going to reoccur,” said Sheikh Abdirahman Sharif, who heads Dar Al-Hijrah, another mosque in Minneapolis. “We need to say with an authoritative voice that this is not Islam, they do not represent Islam, what they are doing is not part of Islam.”
This report erroneously described the nature of the “pilot programs” that the U.S. Department of Justice and other agencies are undertaking in communities like Minneapolis. The main goal is to address the root causes of radicalization, and support new initiatives like jobs- and skills-training and mentorship and after-school programs, among other efforts.