Mohamoud Hassan was a University of Minnesota junior with a bright future that came to an abrupt and uncertain end in his war-torn homeland.
The civil engineering major was one of at least 20 Twin Cities Somali men who left friends and family in America to join the Somali rebel group Al-Shabab and defend his homeland against invading Ethiopian troops. The U.S. government labeled Al-Shabab a foreign terrorist group in 2008.
The 23-year-old was killed in Mogadishu Friday evening, but details of how he died have not been confirmed.
Those who expected Hassan to achieve his education and career goals were disappointed when he left Minneapolis in the fall of his junior year to fight in the war in Somalia.
Friends say Hassan’s family members received the news of his death through a phone call from Somalia. His death was confirmed at an evening prayer at the Abu-Bakr As-Saddique Islamic Center .
According to friends, Hassan was with other Al-Shabab members on his way to break his daily Ramadan fast when he was attacked.
“It’s weird that he’s not here because he was with us last Ramadan,” said a tearful Saida Hassan, an elementary education junior at the University.
It is unclear how the Somali men left the Twin Cities. There has been speculation that the Abu-Bakr As-Saddique Islamic Center was involved in sending the men to Somalia, allegations which the mosque denies.
An FBI investigation of the mosque is pending.
Hassan’s friends say he revealed no signs that he was planning to leave. Even in the weeks before he left, Hassan worried about being late for class and acted “normal,” psychology junior Muna Mohamed said. Mohamed noticed this was the “total opposite” of the behavior of Abdisalan Ali, another University student who left last year to fight in Somalia.
After Hassan left, he kept minimal contact with the outside world because “he knew he was being watched,” said Saleh Ali, an agriculture and food business management sophomore
Friends say Hassan paid more attention to the war between Somalia and Ethiopia as it began to escalate during his sophomore year.
“He saw people getting killed, women being raped. He couldn’t bear that. He had to help the Somali community, unite us and fight the people killing us,” Ali explained.
In an essay dated May 2007 posted on Bartamaha, a Somali Web site, Hassan wrote, “Our people are tired of the sad state that we are in … Is it fair for a nation of 10 million people to be held hostage by a handful of thugs driven by selfish interests? … After 13 or 14 peace conferences, a major UN intervention and a couple of previous governments when is enough really enough?”
Hassan’s friends noticed he became more religious in the spring of his sophomore year, changing from a “hip-hop guy” donning a baggy t-shirt and jeans to a “modest, straight brother,” wearing a traditional, long white-colored garment, Ali said. Hassan even told friends to stop calling him by his once nickname “Snake” and went by the name “Bashir” instead.
Saida Hassan said people used to underestimate Hassan’s intellect because he wasn’t the “nerd-looking type.” After the transformation, people looked up to him, Mohamed said.
Studying the Quran and attending the mosque became a regular practice for Hassan. He was also an organizer with the Somali Students Association, the vice president at the Minnesota Somali Student Union and a muadhin – the person who calls worshipers to the five daily prayers at the mosque.
“I asked him why he changed and he said he always loved religion but he drifted in high school,” Mohamed said. “But he also kept his humor. He’d say, ‘Who said religious people can’t be funny?'”
Neuroscience junior Sahra Qaxiye was a close friend of Hassan’s. She recalls his optimism even when he heard about the fatal shooting of 20-year-old Augsburg college student Ahmed Nur Ali outside the Brian Coyle Center in September 2008. “He said, ‘It’s Ok, things happen, people die. You just have to prepare yourself,’ ” she said.”I just can’t believe I’m using the past tense on him. I thought this would get easier.”
Besides being involved with the community, Hassan took care of his grandmother. “He mentioned her all the time,” Mohamed said. Especially after Hassan’s uncle left Minneapolis to tend to a sick relative in Africa, Hassan would take his grandma to appointments and translate for her.
Hassan worked at a department store as a sales cashier and as a security guard at the University.
Despite Hassan’s transformation, his friends say they don’t think his involvement with the mosque caused him to leave Minneapolis. They also don’t believe he was brainwashed.
“My brother became straight, civilized and respectful,” said Ali of Hassan.
Ali says he and Hassan attended Friday prayers, volunteered at the mosque and went to dugsi (Islamic school) together.
“I would’ve known if a guy had brainwashed him. Bashir made this choice by himself. He was a smart, independent brother,” he said.
Concerns in the Somali community
There has been a division within the Somali community in deciding who is to blame for the recruitment of the missing Somali men. The community is also concerned that another wave of young men may leave to join Al-Shabab, which Hassan’s friends say is impossible to prevent.
Although mosque attendance had decreased after the young men left, there has recently been increased mosque attendance, perhaps due to Ramadan, said Mohamed. The mosque has tried to divert the negative attention by hosting open house community dinners and events.
Still, Qaxiye says she is disappointed in the mosque leaders. She believes the men wouldn’t have left if local mosque leaders had been more open to discussing politics with the community.
“Somali youth are frustrated because they are confused about Al-Shabab and what is politics and what is religion. Nobody talks about it,” Qaxiye said. “There’s something wrong with our community, we’re losing the people who are our future.”
“[Hassan] wouldn’t want people to mourn for him,” Qaxiye said. “He died for something he thought was correct, and Allah always counts people’s intentions. If he was brainwashed by people, then they will be judged – not him.”
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