comScore

Minnesota Somalis Battle Terror Recruiters for Young Souls

itemprop

Abdirizak Bihi paces the courtyard of Riverside Plaza in Minneapolis, awaiting his children's arrival from school.

Dirt blows freely down Cedar Avenue as piss-colored newspapers dance in the wind. In the shade of a tree stand a slouching man and a woman with cavernous eyes, locked in stormy debate.

The woman wags a finger and stomps the ground, her leathery voice scaring the pigeons. The man, known in the neighborhood as Salid, named for a Somali village so small that you won't find it on a map, responds to her anger with a bemused smile that creeps across his pudgy face.

To an outsider, their words are indecipherable. Except two: al-Shabab. It's regarded as a terrorist organization by the West, an al-Qaeda ally engaged in combat against the Somali government and African Union soldiers. When translated, the phrase literally means "the youth," a rather innocent sobriquet for hardline Islamists who kill aid workers, shoot up shopping malls, and bomb United Nations facilities.

Salid abandons the conversation and walks away. Bihi asks if he could repeat for a reporter, in English, what he just told the woman.

Salid sizes up the reporter without saying a word.

Ali Saleh of Minneapolis, an 18-year-old understudy prevention in terrorism

Ali Saleh of Minneapolis, an 18-year-old understudy prevention in terrorism

"Why do you support al-Shabab?" Bihi presses.

Salid only smirks, then disappears into the street, lost between construction workers and machines.

The school bus arrives and out bursts a small army of children. Bihi's daughters, 8 and 10, skip freely into the sunshine.

He does not tell them what he just witnessed. They only want money for ice cream.

If you want a taste of Minnesota's 30,000-strong Somali community, walk along South Sixth Street in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Men with orange-dyed goatees and white caps hold hands. Commuters scurry from the train, talking at high speeds into their cellphones. A man with tiny shoes in place of missing legs wheels about with an easy smile.

In the shadow of the city's fortresses of commerce and law sits Currie Park. It has become the foremost battleground of America's deepest fear: homegrown terrorism.

Since 2007, more than 20 young men have left Minnesota to join al-Shabab.

The news only grew worse this summer when two Minnesotans — one Somali — died while fighting for ISIS. Three women are also believed to have fled the U.S. to aid the sadistic Sunnis, known for their fondness for beheadings and massacre. In the meantime, a grand jury has convened in St. Paul, part of an investigation to smoke out recruiters and sponsors of global jihad.

Abdirizak Bihi is intimate with America's fear. In 2008, his nephew ditched school and hopped a plane for Somalia with a friend. Burhan Hassan left the African nation as a 4-year-old refugee, only to return as a 17-year-old soldier. Within a year, he was dead. Relatives believe al-Shabab put a bullet in his head after Hassan grew ill and tried to return home.

Bihi has since remade himself as a counterterrorism machine. He runs the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center, where he chats with neighborhood kids, calls employers about job openings, and translates housing applications for non-English speakers.

He mines information from residents who track pop-up terror websites. His network of youth sports coaches extends as far away as Savage — people he calls to organize games to keep the kids occupied.

So when the words "terrorism" and "Minnesota" were again conjoined in the news, Bihi and his fellow activists knew what to do: hold an emergency soccer tournament.

Experience told them that reporters would soon be parachuting in from as far away as Japan. What better way to dispel rumors of a terrorist hotbed than by presenting made-for-TV images of kids romping on grassy fields?

[page]

As the boys play, Ali Saleh walks the perimeter of Currie Park. He looks not for talented players but suspicious men. At 18, bright-eyed and athletic, he hopes to someday work for the FBI, the U.S. Marshals, the Secret Service — whoever will take him. For now he's content to play Bihi's understudy, hunting the grounds for the specters of terrorism.

Bihi joined his allies in September to speak about the larger problems affecting their community.

Bihi joined his allies in September to speak about the larger problems affecting their community.

To hear Bihi tell it, the recruiters come in all sizes. But they tend to be older men hoping to slip into a fatherless family as a role model. The openings are abundant. The Somali civil war decimated the country's male population.

A recruiter's pitch is rarely short or direct, Bihi says. It begins with queries of home life and trips to the movies, then flows into unyielding religious instruction — how God commands boys to wear religious garments, girls to forsake sports. They ask the children to make a choice: Be American, or be Muslim. The planting precedes the harvest by years.

Bihi recalls an incident from earlier this summer. He watched from afar as his daughters sat on a bench, listening to a man talk. He was happy just to see his girls sit still for a minute.

After the man left, Bihi walked the girls to their bedraggled minivan. They started to cry. "Oh my god, Dad," he recalls his 8-year-old wailing. "I'm going to hell for playing basketball."

After his daughters were targeted, he began making the rounds at two other parks where young Somalis congregate — Matthews and Riverside. He makes his presence known by shooting hoops as he looks for strangers who've captured the attention of normally restless children. Bihi closes in to listen.

"They try to avoid me," he says. So Bihi intervenes. "Sometimes I go over there and say, 'Hey, beautiful day!' Basically, 'Screw you.'"

By nightfall, Currie Park is nearly deserted. Bihi points to a German TV crew. A woman with a fluffy microphone asks Gacayte Mohamoud about his own possible terror connections. It would be an insulting question in any context, but Mohamoud takes it surprisingly well.

Abdirizak Bihi, head of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center

Abdirizak Bihi, head of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center

For years, Minnesota's Somalis avoided the press, viewing it as either too clumsy or too biased to justly portray an immigrant culture. But this left others to tell their story, and it was often unflattering, a caricature of black Muslims prone to martyrdom and murder.

Yet Bihi insisted there's nothing to fear from the inquisitive outsiders. And the average Joe began to learn the power of public relations.

Mohamoud is not quite the impressionable youth the Germans are looking for. Though he looks 15, he's actually 29. He studied accounting in college and now works for the South St. Paul Public Schools.

After the interview, Mohamoud admits to finding questions of terrorism baffling. It's too far from his world and only exists on TV. But he's also too polite to decline interviews with friendly white people.

"I don't know," he remembers telling the Germans. "What can you tell me about ISIS?"

It's a common feeling in the community: The media plays a role — sometimes unintended — in spreading suspicion. Somalis tend to only appear in the news when there's a fire, a shooting, a suicide bombing overseas.

All of which has left the young men feeling persecuted and defamed. There's an obvious double standard to the coverage: When a white man shoots up a school, it's not because he's white or Christian. But when a Somali goes bad, the reporting tends to be threaded in the colors of a blood-thirsty religion. That upsets the people of Cedar-Riverside, most of whom are too busy with everyday survival to concern themselves with faraway strife.

Kaif Hajhamud at Currie Park

Kaif Hajhamud at Currie Park

"I've only heard of ISIS in the last couple of weeks because of CNN," says Ali Abdullahi, a 23-year-old standing with friends outside the West Bank Grocery. "Nobody gives a fuck about ISIS."

Of much greater interest: finding a job that pays more than $10 an hour.

"You know what we talk about?" his friend D jumps in. "Adrian Peterson beating his fucking kid!"

That's not to say the events in Africa and the Middle East don't bother them. If anyone from the neighborhood returned from war, Abdullahi says, "I would slap him in the face for giving us a bad name."

Returned is the key word.

Abdullahi recalls his friend, Mohamoud Hassan, as a bright student at Roosevelt High with a fondness for poetry and a clownish sense of humor. He was religious, but rarely talked about it. His faith, however, seemed to grow with his frustration as he read about air strikes in Somalia.

In 2006, Ethiopian troops stepped into Somalia to prop up the latest government by ridding the country's south of its Islamic courts. Yet among everyday Somalis, those courts were credited with quelling clan divisions and bringing peace for the first time in years.

Nationalism and religion became one in the same. From that welding rose al-Shabab.

At the University of Minnesota, Hassan began communicating with Zakaria Maruf, a local who joined al-Shabab, and pressing devout friends to get off their asses. The tipping point for Hassan may have come in 2008, when a friend was shot dead outside a youth center.

Soon Hassan and three pals were meeting at school to discuss their next step. A mysterious man claiming to be an uncle helped them buy plane tickets. When Hassan resurfaced, he was at an al-Shabab camp for new recruits.

Abdullahi says he ran into Hassan on a trip to Mogadishu and was startled to see how his friend had changed. Hassan had once been the "cool guy, kicking with fucking bitches, drinking," says Abdullahi. Now he was intense, having traded in his oversized hoodies for the white robes of the pious.

He thought Hassan was visiting family. But after returning to the states, Abdullahi got the news: Hassan had been ambushed in Mogadishu while searching for food. At 23, he became the fifth Minnesota member of al-Shabab to die.

"I could have stopped a nigga from doing some stupid shit," Abdullahi says. "If only I was more knowing and had cared what was going on. Somebody got in his ear. It's hard to believe, but a lot of people get in your ear."

[page]

Bihi's office in the Brian Coyle Community Center is the size of a walk-in closet. He's here every day of the week, camped out among basketballs, begging friends and neighbors for $20, $30, $50 apiece.

On this day he's hosting a fundraiser to keep his nonprofit afloat. Hustling money is a humiliating chore for a man who's chased by reporters and regularly appears on national TV. Within a matter of hours he received messages from nine media outlets, everyone from Reuters to the New York Times. Above his computer sits a card signed by President Obama.

Before his nephew died, Bihi planned to open a dry cleaning business. Instead, he brought the small nest egg he'd saved from working as a translator for Hennepin County to his new vocation: saving the children. He's become something of a lightning rod among Minnesota's Muslims. In 2011, a year after Faisal Shahzad, an American, tried to detonate a bomb in Times Square, Republican Congressman Peter King of Long Island held hearings on the threat of homegrown Islamic radicals. The blustery pol surmised that Muslims of all stripes were complicit in the actions of the fanatical few.

In Bihi, King found someone unafraid to criticize his own. Bihi's testimony called out the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in south Minneapolis, the religious home of many of those who'd disappeared overseas, including his nephew.

"We never thought we could be hurt by the very institution that we trusted with our children," he testified, insinuating that mosque leaders were indoctrinating boys. He also blasted the Sheikh Abdirahman Omar for supposedly obstructing his family's quest for answers.

Back home, Bihi's words earned both vitriol and praise, falling along distinct partisan lines. Republican Congressman Chip Cravaack said Bihi's pain qualified him as an expert, while Minneapolis Democrat Keith Ellison insinuated that Bihi was a tool of the right wing.

The mosque and the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group, later returned fire with a public letter, suggesting Bihi was capitalizing on his nephew's death to raise his own status. His greatest sin: failing to distinguish between Islam and terrorism, coloring all Somalis as suspect.

His critics are quieter these days. Jaylani Hussein, CAIR's outreach director in Minnesota, declined comment. Ellison did not respond to repeated interview requests.

Bihi claims that after the hearings, both King and the Obama administration offered financial support. He has yet to see a dollar. So he continues his mission on the cheap.

It's not an easy sell to boys who traded the hardship of Somalia for the American replica in Cedar-Riverside. When you're broke, bored, and without prospects, the gallantry of holy war abroad can seem as compelling as a video game.

The young men who go overseas "share one common thing: poverty," says Mohamud Noor of the Minneapolis School Board.

The Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota estimates the community's unemployment rate at 15 to 20 percent — four to five times higher than the rest of Minneapolis.

The Brian Coyle gymnasium fills with the boys from the soccer field. They break from practice for a free showing of Ana's Playground, a movie shot just down the street with an all-Minnesotan cast and crew.

Cedar-Riverside was used as a stand-in for a generic war zone. But images of the apartment towers are intended to send a clear message: Things in Minneapolis could always be worse.

"This is the long haul of getting rid of extremism," says Jibril Afyare, a software engineer who ushers the boys inside. "It starts at home."

The 10-minute film depicts a group of white and black children trying in vain to play soccer in the midst of gunfire. From the darkness of the gym comes Afyare's voice: "Does that make Cedar-Riverside look good or bad?"

"Eh," says a boy. "It's just a movie."

On the screen, a sniper corners a girl in a courtyard. She turns to bravely face her executioner. But as the sniper hesitates, lowering his rifle, the girl's friends fire a grenade, blowing him to smithereens.

Afyare pipes up again to give his take on the film's message: "If you shoot people, you're going to get killed."

"That's deep," says one of the boys, starting a chain reaction of snickering from his peers.

Credits roll and the lights come up. Bihi asks the kids what they think.

"We didn't understand," says a little one.

Bihi starts to explain that the on-screen war zone is reminiscent of Somalia, no place a boy would wish to live. But his voice is soon drowned out by the drumming of basketballs.

[page]

The Starbucks patio on Riverside Avenue is overflowing with middle-aged men who sip coffee with a side of car exhaust. These are the Somali community's armchair politicos, perpetually debating the nuances of life back home. Most couldn't tell you what happened this month at City Hall, but they know what happened this morning in Mogadishu.

There's a term for what they do: fadhi ku dirir. It means "fighting while sitting," and the boys in the community throw it around as an insult. The implication: These men forever talk of abstractions halfway across the globe, oblivious to the heartache in their own backyard.

A reporter approaches a portly truck driver to ask what he thinks of living in this city, this country, and of his neighbors showing up in the news.

"No," the man says with a sideways glance. "Journalists are dangerous."

Others are more welcoming. But this insular community is as weary of the U.S. government as the government is of them. It's not surprising to hear ideas furnished in conspiracies.

"Al-Shabab is the U.S. government," says Ahmed Said, a musician and a poet, and he's dead serious. He believes terrorists meet occasionally at the White House, which funnels them supplies. Why? He hasn't quite figured that out, but suspects that America just likes having bad guys to point the finger at.

Still, Said knows where his sympathies lie — with his children and their stable homestead. Following Somali politics for years has shown him the devastation that the terrorists wreak. To make sure his kids understand, he's burned YouTube clips of stonings and dead bodies into their memories.

"You can kill the man," he says, "but you can't kill the truth."

Not everyone sees it this way. Until late 2011, Abdiwali Warsame, also known as Dalboon, ran Somalimidnimo.com. Before the site went dark, he published al-Shabab press releases that trumpeted the glories of the battlefield.

Warsame didn't respond to repeated interview requests, but his writing portrays terrorists as freedom fighters.

These opinions shouldn't be suppressed, says Charles Swift, a retired naval officer and attorney who's represented Guantanamo prisoners and once met with Warsame. They should be thrust into the light of day so the community can self-police.

Swift believes the feds have played a role in the divide between Somalis and the rest of the country. Instead of reaching out, the government has tended to rely on informers, surveillance, and zealous prosecution that defies empathy or nuance.

"You cannot establish a level of trust when the only way I trust you is if you're wearing a wire," he says.

Swift points to his client, Nima Ali Yusuf. Two years ago, the San Diego woman was sentenced to eight years in prison for donating $1,450 to al-Shabab. Her money wasn't intended to help bomb a marketplace. She believed the group protected women from the rape that was endemic during civil war.

The feds may finally be coming around to the idea that self-policing is the best mode of defense. Last month, U.S. Attorney Andy Luger announced a new anti-terror pilot program in the Twin Cities, but provided no details, though he did invite community leaders to a meeting at the White House.

It's a nice gesture, but the feds won't repair their image overnight. The news was met by jubilation — as well as cynicsim. Burhan Mohumed, a 24-year-old grad student and youth coordinator at Brian Coyle, scoffs at the proposal. He believes the program will only lead to sting operations, further alienating those who might otherwise help police.

"On paper, America will protect you till your last breath," he says. "But when you put it in the hands of a man, he's gonna fuck up."

If Luger's plans are to succeed, the mosques will have to play a central role. But they're highly sensitive to the suspicions they generate, which makes them reluctant to call police.

In a rare case in 2011, police were summoned to the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque in south Minneapolis. A visiting scholar urged worshippers to ignore the politics and violence of Somalia, causing one 23-year-old man to punch a religious leader in the face.

No charges were filed, but the event was seen as a long-overdue cleansing of radicals. All of the men involved have since left the mosque, though it's unclear to where.

Yet police involvement can also backfire. In June, Amir Meshal was charged with trespassing at Al-Farooq Youth & Family Center in Bloomington for expressing radical views around the kids. Community leaders rejoiced. Then court papers surfaced, suggesting that Meshal may actually be an FBI informant. Worse, he may also be a former terrorist. Seven years ago, he was picked up and interrogated in Kenya after fleeing an al-Shabab training camp. He disappeared following his arrest.

Also part of the pilot program is Boston, where Deeqo Jibril runs the Somali Community & Cultural Association. For years, she's looked to the Twin Cities for lessons that might serve Massachusetts's 20,000 Somalis. It's only a matter of time, she says, before recruiters arrive in New England.

"They already succeeded in Minneapolis," she says. Don't think they're going to just stay there. They're not dumb."

So she's turning to those often relegated to the backseat of Somali life, those closest to the boys: mothers. It may be considered bad form in the community to talk of terrorism, even critically, but Jibril believes women need to step up.

"If we don't condemn them, who will?" she says. "Do you want your child to be the next victim?"

[page]

Dinner is served. Back at Brian Coyle, women pick at fried chicken and wipe rice off the faces of slobbering babies.

They've come here as part of a series of events designed to more clearly define their role as protectors of the youth — from extremists and the government alike. Tonight's topic is the U.S. Constitution and the rights therein: to an attorney, to a speedy trial, to remain silent.

Leading the lecture is Dr. Artika Tyner, a professor at St. Thomas, who expresses excitement with open hands. Your rights begin the moment you've been stopped and cannot go home, she says. It doesn't matter if you're in handcuffs.

Faces in the audience register surprise. But Tyner cautions that the Constitution is only a blueprint. "For it to truly come alive, it needs all of us — we the people taking a stand."

A little boy, hardly big enough to see over a table, raises his hand. He smiles shyly and asks the professor for a copy of the Constitution. He wants to give it to his mom.

The next night, the women gather to marvel over the work of Saado Ali Warsame, a folk singer and member of the Somali parliament. She lived in Minnesota from 2007 to 2012, then returned to Somalia. For decades she challenged the various Somali powers-that-be through songs critical of the bloody, corrupt mess all around her.

She was gunned down in July while driving through Mogadishu. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility. A state funeral was held in her honor.

But she's singing now in a video on the wall. Behind the projector, a woman in a rose-patterned hijab sways back and forth, pumping a hand into the air. The fading sun over Currie Park shimmies off her dress as two young boys sit nearby, listening to the singer's soaring vocals.

Outside, young men and boys play basketball and tell jokes, oblivious to the memorial on the other side of the wall. In the shadows stands Ali Hayle with a football under his arm. He volunteers at Brian Coyle when he gets the chance, which is becoming more frequent. He's 35 and works part-time in a warehouse, moving boxes.

Hayle speaks a scrambled brand of English, searching for the right words.

"I am — what's it called? — depressed," he says. "I don't like this life, man." He knows that without computer skills, his prospects are few.

Hayle is one of the few people in the neighborhood who admits to encountering an al-Shabab recruiter. He was standing in a parking lot two years ago, rolling a joint, when a stranger approached and asked why he was doing that. The man mentioned an affiliation with al-Shabab. Hayle took a picture of his license plate and sent it to the FBI.

On his mind at the moment, though, is the day he can return to his native country, but this one won't give him a passport. He's not entirely sure why, but it might have something to do with the khat he used to sell while chasing work on the West Coast. When mashed between the gums and lips, the flower can cause a mild high — like Skoal on steroids. It's popular in East Africa, but illegal here.

So Hayle bides his time. If he ever gets back to the motherland, he plans to first visit his family, then organize a band of armed men to eradicate extremism.

"The only hope I have is to kill them."

The sky is getting dark. Few souls remain in Currie Park, save for soccer players and coaches.

They form a line at the center of the field. A boy steps forth to lead the Maghrib, the evening prayer, and others follow as he begins to recite in Arabic the first chapter of the Qu'ran.

Guide us along the straight way,

The way of those upon whom You have bestowed your blessings, not of those who have been condemned, nor of those who go astray.

They drop to their knees and bow. The boy's head rises from the artificial turf, his forehead matted with black rubber pebbles.

And a new game begins.