Minneapolis Somali community facing dark web of murders

They came to escape civil war, so why are they killing each other in the streets?

On Monday, September 22, Asha Hagi-Mohamed woke her 20-year-old son Ahmednur up at around 5:30 a.m. so that he could pray. Asha had busied herself in the kitchen preparing suhoor, the meal eaten before daybreak during the holy month of Ramadan to prepare for the fast. Asha offered the food to her son, her husband, and the other five members of the household, and then the family prayed. It was during the last 10 days of Ramadan, the holiest time of the Muslim holy month, when the gates of hell were closed.

After the fajr, the dawn prayer, Ahmednur Ali returned to bed, where he dozed until the last possible moment. Around 8:30 a.m., Asha heard her son rise again and ask his father for lunch money. Then Ahmednur left with his older sister, who drove him from their Columbia Heights home to Augsburg College, where he had just begun his third year as an international-relations major.

Ahmednur was only four years old when his family left Somalia in the fall of 1991. The family spent seven years in Cairo and then settled in Minnesota in 1998. Asha had chosen Cairo and Minnesota for the same reasons: Both locations were safe, and both offered the kids an education. Ahmednur impressed his siblings with his deep knowledge of Somalia and its history. He read incessantly, and not only spoke, but also wrote, Somali—quite an accomplishment for a young man educated in schools where his language was not taught.

Augsburg College student Ahmednur Ali aspired to become president of Somalia one day, but instead his life was cut short. He was murdered after volunteering at Brian Coyle Community Center.
courtesy family of Ahmednur Ali
Augsburg College student Ahmednur Ali aspired to become president of Somalia one day, but instead his life was cut short. He was murdered after volunteering at Brian Coyle Community Center.
Saeed Osman Fahia, the unofficial historian of Somalis in Minnesota, understands the social factors that have led to violence among Somali youth
Nick Vlcek
Saeed Osman Fahia, the unofficial historian of Somalis in Minnesota, understands the social factors that have led to violence among Somali youth

At Augsburg, Ahmednur had a soccer scholarship and had founded the Muslim Student Association. The résumé he submitted for a work-study job at the Brian Coyle Community Center in Cedar-Riverside stated that his career objective was to work there. "He had a good reputation in the community and was an emerging leader," says Jennifer Blevins, director of the center. The young Somali-American had a specific political model in mind: Barack Obama

At first, Asha had not wanted Ahmednur to volunteer at Brian Coyle. There had been stabbings and shootings in the neighborhood, and Asha feared for his safety. But Asha's husband, Ahmed Ali Ulusow, a respected elder of the Twin Cities Somali community, thought his son should serve his people. Ahmednur had big ambitions: to work for the United Nations, and, ultimately, to become president of Somalia. He'd even set up a Facebook group for his campaign. "Somalia will be ruled by me in the upcoming years, so I might as well start campaigning now," he wrote on the group page. He promised to reunite the country and rid it of "qabil minds," a reference to the clan warfare that catapulted Somalia into civil war in 1991 and continues to tear it apart today. "Islam means peace," wrote Ahmednur, "and peace we will live in."

At Brian Coyle that day, Ahmednur helped the other kids finish their homework in the computer lab. As he was supervising little kids in the gym, 16-year-old Ramadan Abdi Shiekhosman came in, wanting to play basketball. Ahmednur told him to come back later, when the younger kids finished. Shiekhosman allegedly got angry, shoved him, and left.

At 5 p.m., Ahmednur finished his job at Brian Coyle for the day and walked into the sunny parking lot. According to the charges against him, Shiekhosman confronted Ahmednur, pulled out a dark-colored handgun, and struck him over the head. The young gunman fired one shot into the back of Ahmednur's head and then ran away.

Ahmednur's body lay crumpled on a patch of pavement between two trees, blood running from his head onto the back of his white shirt, seeping over his shoulder and onto his chest.

A young man tried to give Ahmednur CPR. Another called 911.

"Where is he shot?" the dispatcher asked.

"They think he's dead already," the caller said. "Um, I think in his head. Oh shit, he's bleeding out of his mouth some, all over."

The boy who wanted to be Barack Obama expired before the ambulance arrived. The man who had given Ahmednur CPR called Ahmednur's brother. The brother called his father, Ahmed, and told him that his son had been shot and killed.

Minutes later, Ahmed's phone rang. It was his wife, Asha. She had just completed asr, the third prayer of the day.

Ahmed told his wife that their son had been shot. But that is all he told her—he couldn't tell her over the phone that her beloved boy was dead.

Immediately, Asha began to pray. Her daughters frantically worked the phone, calling friends and hospitals for any scrap of information.

A neighbor came by in a blue Dodge van to take Asha to the hospital. The neighbor called Ahmed to ask where to go.

When she saw the neighbor's tears, Asha realized her son was dead.

"They never thought there would be gunfights here," explains Ahmednur's sister, translating for her mother, who speaks Somali. "Over there, every day somebody gets killed from a gunshot. They were expecting maybe in a car accident, or natural death, but not gangs."

 

AHMEDNUR FELL VICTIM to a pattern of violence that has left Minnesota Somalis confused, angered, and afraid: Five young Somalis have been murdered in the past 12 months.

Before the Somali Civil War began in 1991, Minnesota was home to only a handful of Somalis—maybe 20 or 30 in the whole state, says Saeed Osman Fahia, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota.

If there is a local historian of the Somali struggle, it is Fahia. He's often the one called upon to deliver PowerPoint presentations explaining their history and culture: the food, the clans, religion, traditional dress, those confusing names. "Sometimes someone will employ a lot of Somalis, and we will want their employers to understand," Fahia explains.

Inside Fahia's windowless, closet-sized office at Brian Coyle, an orange batik tapestry embroidered with donkeys, camels, and elephants brightens the dingy white concrete wall behind his desk. From this office, Fahia tracks the piecemeal statistics that trace the outlines of the Somali diaspora. It is difficult, he says, to know the size of the Somali population in the Twin Cities, as no single agency collects the data, but Fahia guesses that the right figure is about 60,000, making it the largest Somali population in North America.

Somalis began arriving in Minnesota en masse in the early 1990s, at a rate of about 200 to 500 each year. They found low-skill jobs in meat factories and assembly lines, as parking-lot attendants and janitors. They worked in Marshall and Willmar, and at Gold'n Plump Chicken production plants in Cold Spring, Luverne, and Arcadia, Wisconsin.

By the late 1990s, thousands of Somalis were coming to Minnesota each year. The refugees were from every conceivable background, a mix of rich and poor, well-educated and illiterate. But regardless of their station in their home country, in Minnesota they all started over. At least one-third were under 18, many of them missing fathers, some both parents, orphans of the war. Some lived with distant relatives; many had experienced the horrors of war and still suffered from post-traumatic stress.

Somalis settled throughout the Twin Cities, many in Eden Prairie, Columbia Heights, Fridley, near Peavey Park and Elliot Park in Minneapolis—but the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, near the University of Minnesota's West Bank, became the heart of the community. "Cedar," as it is known, is home to Riverside Plaza, six high-rise towers of various heights, containing 1,303 apartments, one of which was once featured as the residence of Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Now, half of the buildings are low-income housing and they are nicknamed "the Crack Stacks."

The young Somalis struggled hardest to assimilate to their new surroundings. They tried to fit in with the local African American community, but were ostracized for being different. American students pulled the headscarves off Somali girls and mocked students who washed their feet in the bathroom sinks before prayers. "Even being called a Somalian was an insult because of the way they used it," says one former Roosevelt High School student.

To protect themselves, several of the boys banded together into a group called the Rough Tough Somalis. If they saw a Somali getting picked on or beaten up, they'd leap to his aid. They carried broken bottles and the sharpened tips of metal fencing as self-defense weapons.

Within a few years, the violence settled down. School became safe for Somali students, and a new group formed. The Hot Boyz were sharp dressers who sang R&B at a Roosevelt talent show and made all the girls swoon. "They dressed nice, they always asked for more tennis shoes," remembers one young woman who was in high school at the time.

Other boys wanted to be like them, but as the clique grew, some of the new members of the Hot Boyz started getting into trouble—stealing cars or committing robberies. Before long, the community began to regard them as a gang. The Hot Boyz became a state-documented gang after five of them were involved with the robbing and killing of a Somali woman, a vendor of khat, a mild stimulant that is illegal in the U.S.

This act of violence came a few years after the Bush administration passed the No Child Left Behind act. Stricter laws on foreign language instruction had led to many prominent Somali teachers being laid off. No longer was there a connection between parents and teachers. Kids dropped out and began hanging out together, calling themselves names like Murda Squad, Riverside Riders, Somali Mafia, and Madhibaan With Attitude. These gangs were nothing like the highly organized, regimented street gangs of Los Angeles or Chicago; they were loose-knit groups with shifting alliances and constantly changing names.

"If there's one thing that caused all this, the entire Somali gang problem, it's the No Child Left Behind program," says Shukri Adan, author of the 2007 Report on Somali Youth Issues commissioned by the city of Minneapolis. "In one act, they created a gang culture."

 

AROUND 7:30 A.M. on December 1, 2007, Minneapolis police officers arrived at a house on Pleasant Avenue in south Minneapolis and found a gruesome tableau. The shoeless, bloodied body of Arie Musse Jama lay stretched across the snow-covered ground in the alley by the house, a bullet hole in his chest and another through his neck. Najib Ali Omar was dead inside the house, also shoeless. They'd been dead for close to three hours by the time the cops arrived.

Arie Musse Jama was his legal name, but almost everybody called him "Snoop." He liked to rap, and had a long, lean build like his namesake. Also like his namesake, Snoop had an extensive rap sheet. By the time he was 27, he'd been arrested by Minneapolis police 46 times, mostly for drug possession but also for assault and robbery. Snoop had been an early member of the Rough Tough Somalis, and the community viewed him as a gang member (though his family says he was not).

Najib, 25, was Snoop's distant relative and had moved to Minneapolis three years before. It's thought that he was the true target of the crime, and Snoop was killed so as not to leave any witnesses, an unfortunate casualty of his friendship. Rumor about what happened that night traveled fast, and within hours the Somali community had a story and a suspect: Najib had quarreled with another Somali over a girl they'd both dated, according to the gossip. Words escalated into a fistfight, and the loser planned his revenge. That night at the Pleasant Avenue house, the killer rescued his honor by shooting first Najib, then Snoop.

Somalis pegged the primary suspects as two troubled men with criminal records and bad reputations in the community. Rumor spread quickly, and now nearly everyone seems to believe that one particular man did the killings—though police have not charged him with the crimes.

In the months after the double homicide, Snoop's brother, 31-year-old Mohamed Jama, whom everyone called "Nurki," made no secret of his suspicions. "I know you guys did it and you're not going to get away with it," he was heard to threaten more than once, according to a family member who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.

Like Snoop's, Mohamed's past was stained by run-ins with the law, but by most accounts he'd turned his life around. He was married and had a three-year-old daughter, and worked as a basketball coach and youth mentor at Brian Coyle. But his good deeds couldn't save him; seven months after Snoop was murdered, Mohamed was shot dead in the back of the head outside a Brooklyn Center hotel. Plenty of people were around when he died, but no one would talk. Nurki's family thinks he was probably killed because of something to do with Snoop. "They were afraid of him," says one of Snoop's relatives, adding, "I cry a lot."

The violence continued. Five months after Snoop and Najib died, an 18-year-old kid was shot through the head. Little Abdillahi Awil Abdi, or "Shorty," as he was known, was a senior at Volunteers of America High School in Minneapolis. On April 11, Abdillahi played hoops at Brian Coyle, then walked a few blocks to meet a friend behind the Freewheel Bike shop on Sixth Avenue just off Cedar. They planned to go to a birthday party. Abdillahi got into the car at about 9 p.m. Another car pulled into the alley. A gunman stepped out. He opened Abdillahi's door and fired several times. Little Abdillahi slumped dead in his seat.

Though his life was taken by violence, Abdillahi had nothing to do with gangs or crime. He had a good reputation in the community and a clean record. Rumor says the killer was looking for one of Abdillahi's older brothers. When he found Abdillahi he killed him instead. Police say the suspect has fled the country.

As fast as gossip spreads on the streets, it collected in online chat rooms such as SomaliNet or Hiiraan.com, where Somalis gather to discuss everything from Somali politics to American culture to local crimes. Rumors focused on suspects, families, and tribes.

Abdillahi's death sounded a shrill note of alarm for the Somali community. The violence seemed to be escalating, and it was spreading from dangerous and troubled men to their innocent family members. The community could understand how someone who had been involved in crime might end up dead. But little Abdillahi? "He was innocent," says Barkhad Abdinasir Abdi, a 22-year-old student who knew him and who is working on a documentary about the reasons for the wave of youth violence. "He had nothing to do with it."

Prosecutors say that Hassan Mohamed Abdillahi, little Abdillahi's cousin, vowed to avenge the killing. (Hassan's family vehemently denies this, and says the community has falsely accused him of a number of killings, including one while he was in another state.) A witness testified that on September 11 of this year, Hassan said he would retaliate for the slaying of his cousin Abdillahi, according to court records. Hassan had a specific victim in mind: 22-year-old Abdishakur Adan Hassan. According to court documents, Hassan knew Abdishakur wasn't the killer of little Abdillahi. But since the killer was in Kenya, Hassan decided to shoot a friend of the killer instead.

On September 29, Hassan allegedly carried a gun to the Somali mall on East 24th Street and 10th Avenue in south Minneapolis. Abdishakur was standing around with a couple of friends near the back door of the shopping center. In a hooded sweatshirt that shadowed his face, Hassan approached the trio. He walked by, passing within a few feet, then whirled around and blasted Abdishakur with a shotgun.

Abdishakur fell to the ground, dead. He was the sixth victim of Somali-on-Somali murder in the past two years, and the fifth in less than a year. "It's really sad," says Abdi, the documenatry filmmaker. "You just feel angry but you don't know who to blame. You are just hopeless. That's the worst thing that can happen to anybody."

 

FOUR DAYS AFTER Abdishakur was gunned down at the Somali mall, some 50 Somali students gathered to protest the gang violence that plagued their community.

"What do we want? Peace!" they chanted. "When do want it? Now!"

Their voices echoed past an internet cafe, around the corner to a barber shop, past great racks of colorful garments lined up against the shopping center's goldenrod-colored walls.

"Stop the violence!" they cried. "Somalis unite!"

Aman Obsiye, a soft-spoken, baby-faced former rapper from Dallas who cites Malcolm X among his heroes, captivated the crowd with his denouncement of local gang culture. Obsiye, 25, and four other young Somalis have founded a nonprofit focused on eliminating Somali youth violence. "If you look at the evolution of Somali gangs," Obsiye told the crowd, "we went from defending the community to destroying the community. Jumping, stabbing, now shooting. What's next? What are your kids going to be like? What kind of community are you going to leave for your kids?"

The violence seemed to be escalating; another shooting—at Hassan's uncle—took place just days before Abdishakur's murder. And now it seemed that victims could be random.

"The Ahmednur situation—it was a wake-up call for everyone, to see that it could happen to everyone," says Abdirahman Mukhtar, a youth coordinator at Brian Coyle.

Somalis disagree about the cause of the violence. After experiencing bloody clan warfare during the Somali Civil War, the older generation is quick to point to tribalism. It's a topic that pops up frequently in online chat rooms, police point out. "Basically, the Madhiban guys killed two brothers and they lost the little kid that was killed a month ago," wrote someone with the screen name MJ-Pride on SomaliNet on the day that Nurki, the Coyle basketball coach and youth mentor, was murdered.

Others act offended at even the hint that the violence is clan-related. "There is no tribe which collects its youth to become a gang," says Shiekh Abdirahman Shiekh Omar, who serves as the imam of Abubakar As-saddique Islamic Center in south Minneapolis.

Young people and those who work with them say that to blame tribalism is as much a misunderstanding of Somali youth culture as assuming that all boys in baggy jeans are gang members. "Yes, Somalis have loyalty by tribe," says a 28-year-old youth worker. "But for anyone under the age of 35, tribe is not a big factor." In Somalia before the war, tribal leadership provided security, solved problems, and kept the peace. "If I go up to these kids and ask them, 'What has your tribe done for you?' they'll say, 'Nothing,'" says a 22-year-old youth worker.

Adds Fahia, who gives the Somali PowerPoint presentations: "The second generation, they have Somali names. But if you tell them they are Somali, they are more at ease identifying as Americans."

Some fear that the community's talk of tribalism could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As more kids come to Minnesota from places where tribalism is a way of life, it could increase the gang's ranks, youth workers fear. Only about 150 of Minnesota's population of 60,000 Somalis are gang members, according to the Minneapolis police. But they are recruiting the next generation to the lifestyle. "The problem is the influence that is spreading," says the 28-year-old youth worker. Since the recent string of murders began last December, there have been at least as many shootings as killings. "Imagine if every shooting resulted in murder, how high that number could be," says Mukhtar.

Police say the best way for Somalis to stop the violence is to cooperate with authorities by coming forward as eyewitnesses. But communication between Somalis and the police has been fraught with misunderstanding. Jeanine Brudenell, Somali community liaison with the Minneapolis Police Department, remembers holding a community meeting after one killing and getting a cold response. "They basically said, 'The police need to do more. Only when you do more, then we'll help you,'" says Brudenell. "At a meeting one of the elders said, 'We want you to make all the gang members go away.' That's a tall order."

Police interviewed at least 100 people the day Mohamed Jama was slain. "We believe some people actually saw what happened," says Commander Stu Robinson of the Brooklyn Center Police Department. "The people who actually admitted they were there have recanted. So we're really back to square one."

Hearsay also muddies the picture for investigators. Mukhtar, the youth leader, explains it this way: "The way my community works—they talk," he says. "They jump to conclusions by just hearing about rumors."

That "telephone game" became more evident in the Mohamed Jama case, says Robinson. "We had a couple of names that surfaced right away," he says, but they turned out to be in custody or out of the state when Mohamed was killed. Still, accusations about these men persist, leaving Somalis frustrated that officers don't arrest them, and cops frustrated that they can't get more information.

Compounding the problem is the widespread perception among Somalis that the police aren't doing enough to protect their community. Until they feel safe, many say, they won't come forward with what they know.

But in recent months, some brave Somalis have begun to testify. Perhaps because the murder of the Augsburg College student was so shocking, witnesses came forward almost immediately. Police arrested Ramadan Abdi Sheikhosman, a 16-year-old wannabe gangster. Three other witnesses helped police identify Hassan Mohamed Abdillahi as the suspect in the most recent killing—based on his physical build and manner of walking, they I.D.ed him from a security camera videotape.

"I would like to say that we like peace," says Ahmed Warsame, a leader of the Somali elders. "We like to bring peace and live peace. That's why we left our country."

 

IT RAINED on the morning of September 23, the day of Ahmednur Ali's funeral. It was raining still as Ahmednur's father, brothers, and their male friends filed into a Columbia Heights mosque for the khalasa, the washing of the corpse for burial. As the body was brought into the room, the rain stopped. The men poured clear water over Ahmednur's cloth-draped form. They gently wrapped him in a clean, white kafan, the burial cloth. Then the rest of his family came in to say goodbye.

It was raining again when the men placed Ahmednur's body inside the coffin for the janazah, the special prayer for forgiveness of the dead. About 1,000 people prayed that day, some outside the mosque because it was so packed. The heavy rain continued as the cars processed to Burnsville for the burial, making the road slick and delaying the man who brought the body.

When the cars reached the burial site, the rain stopped. The sun came out from behind its curtain of clouds and shone on the mourners. The family took the heavy rain, and its strangely timed absences, as a sign of God's mercy.

"The night he got killed was the 23rd night of Ramadan," said a younger sister.

"Odd nights are better than even nights."

"Last 10 days of Ramadan, another good sign," said his mother, Asha. "He was fasting, too, that's a good sign."

After the men completed the burial, the women of the family approached the grave.

Asha stood there for half an hour, as the other family members stepped away. Islam teaches that the last one to leave the burial site is the person whom the spirit of the deceased remembers. Asha wanted to be the one her son remembered.

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