Burhaan Hassan was a fairly typical kid, the kind who asked his mother for $20 when he wanted to go see a movie on weekends. But on Election Day, while much of the world — including his single mother — was consumed by the historic election, he and a handful of Somali-American teenagers quietly boarded a plane to Kenya, en route to the front lines of a Jihad in Somalia.
Hassan, 17, wasn’t working and couldn’t afford the expensive airfare, said his uncle, Hussein Samatar, an immigrant from Somalia who now runs the African Development Group of Minnesota. “We believe someone — some group — has paid for his ticket,” he said.
Law enforcement agencies and community leaders fear that up to a dozen local boys have been conscripted by a radical group to fight a Jihad in Somalia, a lawless country in the Horn of Africa.
Special agent E. K. Wilson of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) office in Minneapolis wouldn’t confirm or deny the fate of the “missing boys,” as they are known in the community. He would only say that his agency is aware that an unspecified number of Somali youths have traveled from throughout the United States, including Minneapolis, to “potentially fight in Somalia.”
The lack of specificity in the case has jolted the Somali community in Minnesota, estimated at more than 70,000 — the largest in North America. The FBI would neither identify the missing teenagers nor give details of their trips, even though its agents have repeatedly interviewed family members, associates and travel consultants who may have unwittingly sold tickets to unscrupulous recruiters.
The FBI wouldn’t even confirm if a teenager whose remains the agency returned to his family last month was one of five suicide bombers who attacked government and foreign installations in Somalia, killing 24. Yet almost everyone in the community believes that 19-year-old Shirwa Ahmed, a University of Minnesota student, was indeed a culprit in those attacks.
Still, an eerie question — how could this happen to us? — has rattled the Twin Cities Somali community for the past few weeks. While virtually no one denies that the community has been infiltrated by jihadist recruiters, exactly who is to blame for the missing boys is a matter of considerable controversy.
Some activists blame Abubkar As-Saddique Islamic Center (AAIC), located just of Lake Street in south Minneapolis, for preaching intolerance to vulnerable young men. In addition to being the largest mosque in the Twin Cities, some of the missing teenagers, including Hassan, frequented its after-school and youth programs.
Earlier this month, law enforcement officials blocked AAIC’s imam and a youth coordinator from boarding a flight to Mecca for pilgrimage. This intensified the cloud of suspicion hovering over the center.
AAIC officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but released this statement:
“The AAIC does not engage in any political activity. It has not, and will not, recruit for any political cause. There has never been, nor will there ever be, any support of terrorists, their radical philosophy, or their acts by the AAIC. The Center unequivocally condemns suicide bombing and all acts of indiscriminate violence.”
“We needed leadership from them,” said Samatar referring to the AAIC. He says his nephew Hassan memorized the entire Quran at AAIC. A pious young man who reportedly felt a sense of belonging at AAIC, he was a senior at Roosevelt High School, where his academic excellence earned him advance admission to the University of Minnesota.
“He had all the qualities to succeed,” said Samatar wistfully. “Everybody assumed he would grow to become an amazing man.”
Other community leaders call for a nuanced look at the situation. Abdisalam Adam, director of Daral-Hijra Center, a mosque in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, said the whole ordeal should prompt introspection in the community.
A member of a community panel established in the wake of the boys’ disappearances, Adam said young Somali men are in a “disjointed state from the rest of the community,” and in desperate need of emotional anchors.
“Some join gangs,” he said, while “others fall prey to cyber recruiters.”
A United Nations investigation recently uncovered evidence that extremist groups in Somalia have ratcheted up their online recruiting and fundraising capabilities. Among other things, the U.N. Monitoring Group, which is tasked with monitoring weapons flowing to Somalia, found that members of Al-Shabaab (”The Youth”), a Somali group designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization, have “intensified their cyber activities.”
The U.N. report notes that, unlike more moderate Islamist groups in Somalia, Al-Shabaab has relatively young leaders, some from Western countries, in its ranks. Obscure young jihadists with foreign passports have greater mobility — a key advantage over more well-known leaders, experts believe.
Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College in North Carolina, said recruiting Somalis with foreign passports would have “some advantages if [Al-Shabaab] intends to attack sites outside Somalia.”
So far, the group hasn’t carried out attacks beyond Somalia, though it has issued threats. Still, young people with foreign passports also pose a risk to Al-Shabaab, said Menkhaus.
“They have an exit option if they get scared or have doubts … and could turn to law enforcement in the West and expose Al-Shabaab,” he said.
Before these teenagers went missing, youth programs at mosques went minimally scrutinized, complained some community leaders. To address this, Adam, the Daral-Hijra Center director, urges mosque leaders to introduce greater oversight on youth activities.
“Our image as a community is tainted,” he said. “Instead of pointing fingers at our mosques and religious leaders, we need to repair our image. We need to minimize the influence of external factors by increasing oversight.”
Meanwhile, concerned Somali parents are keeping their teenage boys on shorter leashes to prevent them from leaving. Ahmed, a 16-year-old high school student who didn’t want his last name to be used, said his parents no longer allow him to ride the school bus. They personally deliver him to and from school.
“I’m under 24-hour surveillance,” he quipped, noting that his parents also confiscated his passport. “It’s fine with me, though — whatever makes them feel good.” Abdi Aynte, a former fellow at The Minnesota Independent, is Washington correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) World Service.