Somalis in Minneapolis fall under FBI suspicion

March 10, 2009

The immigrants are a success story in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where the state’s tradition of welcoming refugees has helped attract one of the nation’s largest Somali populations. Why some would want to leave, especially to return to a lawless country, has confused many Somalis.

“Like most of the community, I had difficulty believing that anybody would go to Somalia after their own families left because of wars,” said Dr. Abdirahman Mohamed, a Minneapolis physician. “It stunned most of us, I think, when we heard a name of someone who went and died.”

The Senate’s Homeland Security Committee plans a hearing Wednesday on possible terror recruitment in the United States, and witnesses from Minnesota are expected to testify.

Some local Somalis say the young men might have thought they would be seen as patriots.

Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991, when warlords overthrew a socialist dictator and then turned on each other, causing anarchy in the African nation of 7 million.

In 2006, Somalia’s weak government called in Ethiopian troops — with U.N. support — to oust an Islamic group controlling Mogadishu and southern Somalia.

Many Somalis saw the troops as an invading and abusive force. There were countless reports of civilians being raped, beaten or having their homes looted. Islamic militants in the capital city fought back in battles that killed thousands of civilians over two years and displaced more than a million people.

“The majority of Somalis here were opposed to the (Ethiopian) occupation,” said Abdi Samatar, a University of Minnesota geography professor. “The Somali people did not ask for it, and the brutality was incredible. Anybody who’s human-rights oriented and has a patriotic sentiment would be incredibly enraged.”

Then in October, a Minneapolis man carried out a suicide bombing in Somalia. FBI Director Robert Mueller said last month that the bomber had probably been “radicalized” in the Twin Cities.

Now many Somalis say FBI agents have questioned them about recent travels abroad and asked which mosques they attended.

Sharmarke Jama, a 26-year-old businessman, was questioned after traveling to Canada. He said the Ethiopian invasion was a topic of discussion among immigrants, so he was not surprised to hear that some young men might have gone to fight.

But, he said, the suicide bombing was different: “It really shook the foundation of the community … as soon as the suicide bombing came into the equation, it was a whole new ball game.”

The Oct. 29 bombing by Shirwa Ahmed was part of a series of coordinated attacks that targeted a U.N. compound, the Ethiopian consulate and the presidential palace in Hargeisa, capital of the Somaliland region.

U.S. counterterrorism officials have raised concerns that an extremist group called al-Shabab is recruiting young men in Minnesota and elsewhere. It isn’t clear if Ahmed was part of the group. Al-Shabab, a name meaning “The Youth,” controls much of Somalia and wants to establish an Islamic state there.

Many Somalis in the Twin Cities welcome the federal investigation, including Abdirizak Bihi, whose teenage nephew left Minneapolis in November and called his family days later saying he was in Somalia. The boy’s whereabouts are unknown.

“They did not decide to go back to the hell that their families fled from,” Bihi said of the young men who left. “There must be some group that has been brainwashing them.”

Others have worried about a backlash. Mohamed, the physician, said some young Somalis have been questioned unfairly. He said his cousin was detained for hours at the Minneapolis airport while being questioned about a January visit to Nairobi and which mosques he attended.

“What is disturbing is the manner of the questions,” Mohamed said. “Nobody would ask, ‘Have you been to a church?'”

Cawo Abdi, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, said the FBI has given “the impression that there were all these terrorist cells in our midst.”

“It is really unfortunate that everyone has to pay the price for the crime,” he said.

An FBI spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking comment Wednesday, but the agency has said it reached out to community leaders in the Minneapolis area. Spokesman E.K. Wilson has said the FBI wants Somalis to come forward with their concerns and any information.

The families of some men who left suspect Minnesota’s largest mosque, Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, of having a role in their loved ones’ decision — something mosque officials have repeatedly denied. The mosque recently held an open house to try to address public concerns.

Director Farhan Hurre said mosque officials have noticed FBI agents conducting surveillance outside the mosque.

He also said the mosque has received a handful of angry phone calls since the young men left, including one in which the caller said: “You don’t belong here. Go back to your country.”

Local Somalis say they are eager for authorities to finish their investigation.

“The community feels vulnerable when there’s a news item about it,” said Saeed Fahia, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota.

Somalia has a new government under President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a moderate Islamist with allies among the militias who control much of central and parts of southern Somalia. Ahmed’s government directly controls only a few blocks of Mogadishu and the border town of El Berde.

The last Ethiopian troops left Mogadishu in mid-January. But al-Shabab — which controls most of the country — has now threatened to focus attacks on an African Union peacekeeping force.

When it comes to al-Shabab, Mohamed said, “many Somalis hope they will choose the path of peace, and not the path of war.”