When the bloody civil war erupted in Somalia in 1991, various clan-based military factions fought over control of the country after the collapse of former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre’s regime. Hundreds of thousands were uprooted and many have ended up in the Twin Cities.
Though many of the immigrants made success stories in the U.S., there are also dark sides of the story that will likely tarnish the community’s reputation — many Somali men are missing without a trace, and authorities believe they have joined terrorist groups in Somalia.
Since the mysterious disappearances, the Minneapolis-based Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center has been at the center of investigations into the missing men.
Those investigations have reached all the way to Washington, D.C. The FBI has been investigating those at the mosque and, earlier this month, even the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee heard testimony that blamed the mosque for the disappearances.
The effects have been felt by community members here. The mosque has received threats. Parents have stopped allowing their children to attend, and the controversy has divided the Somali community in Minneapolis.
Osman Ahmed testified before the U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security Committee in Washington, D.C., two weeks ago, saying the mosque recruited the children to join Al-Shabab — an extreme Islamic movement that now controls the majority of the country.
His nephew, Burhan Hassan, 17, was a senior at Roosevelt High School before he left for Somalia on Election Day last year.
Ahmed testified that a large amount of money raised by the mosque could be going to the movement, which Washington accuses of having close ties to Al-Qaeda.
Abdirahman Mukhtar, a University of Minnesota alumnus and youth program manager at the Brian Coyle Community Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, testified alongside Ahmed in Washington.
Mukhtar, who went to Roosevelt High School with Shirwa Ahmed, a man thought to be the first U.S. citizen suicide bomber who killed himself late last year in Somalia, has a different opinion than Ahmed.
Mukhtar said in his testimony that he believes the “mosques are considered safe venue that have been able to help at-risk youth more effectively than any other civil or state organizations.”
First established in 1998 in Cedar-Riverside, the mosque stood there for about seven years and was heavily engaged in raising money from the community — more than $1 million.
After millions more raised, the mosque now stands on 28th Avenue and 13th Street South in Minneapolis with a bookstore, an office and a prayer hall occupied by a congregation of about 800 on Fridays and a lot fewer five times a day on others.
Being the only mosque in Minneapolis, which provides numerous activities for youth, Omar Hurre , the executive director of the mosque, said not only does the mosque host guest speakers and weekend classes for children between the ages of six and seven, it also holds summer programs in which hundreds of boys and girls of all ages participated last summer.
Threats to the mosque
Ever since the youth disappeared, the mosque has been receiving threatening voicemails and e-mails from unknown callers, said the director Hurre.
The messages carried hatred toward Somali-Muslims in general and the mosque’s leadership and its congregations in particular.
“Take your radical religious philosophy some place else,” read one e-mail, provided to The Minnesota Daily. “If you continue down this path, it is going to cause blood to be spilled in the streets of our great country.”
Hurre said the mosque contacted the police about the threats. But all the police did was to tell them to call when they have noticed serious problems.
Minneapolis Police spokesman Sgt. William Palmer said there was no “over threatening” because the mosque reported only two voicemails.
“We are not investigating anybody for this matter,” he said.
An imam speaks out
Sheikh Abdirahman Sheikh Omar Ahmad, imam of the mosque, whose name was put on a “no-flight” list because of ongoing investigation over the missing men, called Ahmed’s testimony “lies.”
“The mosques were built so our children could survive,” amid gangs, drugs, alcohol and to learn about the Islamic religion in order to become better Muslims, he said in Somali.
“We didn’t come here to be aggressive or to harm anybody,” he added. “We came to bestow the great things about Islam to [non-Muslims] and to receive great things from them.”
Since the disappeared young men used to pray at the mosque and also attended programs offered by it, many parents feared for their children and withdrew them.
Still, the imam said the mosque is meant to help the community.
“I was told about a mother who withdrew her child from the mosque because she was persuaded not let her children go to the mosque,” the imam said. “Consequently, the child joined a gang. He comes home drunk. The mother is now scared for herself.”
People have said the mosque recruited the missing men to go back to Somalia, but the imam said the mosque welcomes hundreds through its doors and isn’t responsible for the disappearances.
“[For instance] one of your five children that you educated would possibly grow to be a robber and murder,” the imam said. “Are you responsible then and did you teach him to rob and kill the people?”
The imam said it’s the same situation with the mosque.
“The mosques teach children,” he said. “Hundreds of these children completed schools or are in university. Only one, two, or five strayed. Why are the mosques and the Muslim religion and the Muslim people blamed?”
“No one is responsible for another,” he added.
A community’s reaction
The disappearance of about a dozen teenagers first silenced the community because of fear for themselves and for their children whose hearts and minds never truly left Somalia, even after living in the U.S. for more than a decade.
Many in the community say the initial motivation of the disappeared was to liberate their country from the “aggressive” Ethiopian troops. This is not the first time. Ethiopia and Somalia have fought several wars against each other.
News reports say law enforcement officials also believe the missing youth returned to Somalia to defend their country from the Ethiopians, but they also expressed concerns that they could launch terrorist attacks against the United States.
In bewilderment, mosque director Hurre said they have met more than 50 people the FBI has questioned — many are students at the mosque — and “we don’t have even one student who said we were taught about becoming jihadists.”
Abdi Jama , political science and global studies senior at the University, said he thinks a lot of those in the community are scared of attending prayers in the mosque.
Jama said he believes there could be cameras set up in the mosque for the FBI or even people from the department to watch those coming for prayers.
The people in the mosques are not necessarily in terrorist activities but are running away from trouble, he said.
The people don’t want to be questioned, he said, even if they know they won’t be proven guilty.
“We don’t have a law that protects us from being questioned because of the Patriot Act,” Jama added.
Mukhtar Osman, a civil engineering senior, saw a big change after the disappearance of the men.
Osman spent time before the men went missing and still goes there.
“I regularly attend the mosque prayers and tutor the kids there in math,” he said.
Osman feels proud to stay there when others leave and is there when he is not at work or in school. “If I don’t go to the mosque and help those kids, who would?” Osman asked.