Why are young Somali men leaving their homes in Minnesota to die in the name of Allah?
One morning in October 2008, a 26-year-old American named Shirwa Ahmed drove an SUV packed with explosives toward the office of the local intelligence service in Bossaso, a port city in the Somali state of Puntland. The sun was rising rapidly in the cloudless sky and a breeze from the Gulf of Aden blew across the rooftops and minarets of Bossaso’s skyline. Shirwa prayed and mumbled “Allahu Akbar” as he neared his target.
Meanwhile, 360 miles to the west in the city of Hargeisa, capital of the self-declared republic of Somaliland, three other young men had enlisted for a similar mission. The modern-day kamikazes gripped the steering wheels of their speeding truck bombs and raced toward their targets: the presidential palace, a United Nations compound, and the Ethiopian Trade Office.
Somalia, which is predominantly Muslim, and Ethiopia, which is predominantly Christian, are historical rivals. In the years after 9/11, the United States allied closely with Ethiopia while Somalia festered in chaos. Ethiopian tanks rolled into Somalia in December 2006 to topple the standing regime, an Islamist government known as the Union of Islamic Courts. A loose network of local sharia courts extending throughout the country, the Islamic Courts transcended clan divisions and was the closest thing to a unified government the country had had in 15 years. But it also enforced a strict, Taliban-like interpretation of Islam and harbored international terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda. The United States backed the Ethiopian military with weapons and logistics, and by the end of the year the Ethiopians had overrun Mogadishu, Somalia’s largest city and the nation’s capital.
But the swift military victory would prove deceptive. The Islamic Courts soon splintered; its political wing absconded to the nation of Eritrea, while its militant wing, known as al Shabaab or “the youth,” pledged to wage guerrilla war against the Ethiopians and the “transitional federal government” they had propped up. Al Shabaab framed its war as a nationalist struggle against foreign invaders, a religious battle against Ethiopia’s mostly Christian army, and a colonial campaign against what they perceived as a U.S. conspiracy to control the Islamic world. Armed with this palette of anthems, al Shabaab and its supporters combed the Somalian diaspora for young men willing to fight. Shirwa Ahmed was among those who answered the call.
In late 2007, Shirwa, a naturalized U.S. citizen, left his home in Minneapolis to wage jihad in his birthplace of Somalia. Fifteen years earlier, his family had fled Somalia to escape a civil war, hoping to give Shirwa a plethora of opportunities they hadn’t had for themselves. But he shunned their American dream and decided to take part in the same prolonged civil war that his mother had rescued him from.
Shortly before 10:30 a.m. that October morning in 2008, Shirwa’s SUV plowed into Bossaso’s intelligence office. The blast killed at least five people. Another 25 died in the wreckage from the three suicide attacks in Hargeisa.
The impact of the bombings reverberated back in Minneapolis when, a few days later, Shirwa’s sister received a call from Somalia. The unfamiliar voice on the line conveyed a simple, devastating message. “Your brother is a martyr,” it said. “He is in paradise.”
The FBI confirmed the caller’s claim one week later when they identified pieces of Shirwa’s detonated body while sifting the wreckage at the blast sites. They shipped Shirwa’s remains back to Minneapolis. In December 2008, he was buried in the frozen ground of a cemetery in suburban Minneapolis.
“A man from Minneapolis became what we believe to be the first U.S. citizen to carry out a terrorist suicide bombing,” FBI director Robert Mueller said during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in February 2009. “It appears that this individual was radicalized in his hometown in Minnesota.”
Even more disconcerting, however, was the knowledge that Shirwa wasn’t alone. Over the previous two years, as many as 20 young Somali American men had disappeared from their homes in the Minneapolis area to move to Somalia. Most of them vanished without warning. A few called home on occasion. Still, no one knew exactly where they were, what they were doing, who they were with, or what they planned to do next. Shirwa’s fate confirmed everyone’s worst fears: that the boys were training alongside al Shabaab. Since his death, five more Somali Americans from Minneapolis have died in Somalia.
In Mueller’s speech, the FBI director described the possibility that young Somali American men were being recruited to travel halfway around the world to “kill themselves and perhaps many others” as nothing less than a “perversion of the immigrant story.”
Shirwa, like most Somali Americans his age, knew three worlds: childhood in Somalia, early adolescence in a Kenyan refugee camp, and life in the United States. The first disruption in their lives began in January 1991, when Somali president Siad Barre’s regime collapsed and the country quickly descended into a clan-based civil war. U.N. peacekeepers showed up to deliver aid, and American soldiers soon followed to take out the warlords responsible for the worst violence. In October 1993 two U.S. Blackhawk helicopters were shot down in Mogadishu, and the ensuing street battles left 18 American soldiers dead. After TV stations broadcast scenes of Somalis dragging American corpses through the streets of Mogadishu, President Bill Clinton began withdrawing U.S. forces.
Refugees, meanwhile, streamed out of the country. Many of them settled in U.N.-run camps in northern Kenya. In 1987 the State Department began admitting Somali refugees into the United States, though only 110 individuals received refugee status over the first four years of the program. Soon those numbers increased: In 1992 more than 1,400 were admitted, and the number jumped to almost 3,500 by 1994.
Somalis were originally sent to different cities around the country, including Nashville, Tennessee; Atlanta; and San Diego. When Shirwa Ahmed’s family moved to the United States in 1995, they stayed in Portland, Oregon. But, like many others, they became discouraged by the high cost of living and the competition for unskilled labor. Somalis heard that jobs were more plentiful in Minnesota; better yet, a strong social services network existed already. An abundance of public housing provided another incentive, and before long, thousands of Somalis were migrating to Minnesota, despite the frigid winters. Most of them moved into the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.
For more than a century, Cedar-Riverside had served as an entry point for newly arrived immigrants. During the middle of the 19th century, scores of Norwegians, Danes, Swedes, and Finns lived in squatter settlements along the Mississippi River and worked in the flour mills that lined the riverbank. Koreans came in the 1950s and 1960s. Ethiopians, along with a wave of hippies who relished the area’s multicultural yet somewhat down-and-out vibe, followed. Then came tens of thousands of Hmong refugees.
In the late 1960s city planners began work on a cluster of apartment buildings in Cedar-Riverside that would transform a plot of land into a concrete jungle. Officially named Riverside Plaza, the tallest of the buildings subsequently became known as “the towers” or “crack stacks.”
The area is home to as many as a quarter of the estimated 60,000 Somalis living in Minnesota.
Trick-or-treaters were pacing the sidewalks around Riverside Plaza on October 31, 2008, two days after Shirwa Ahmed had blown himself up in Bossaso, when another young man from Minneapolis finalized his plans. Burhan Hassan walked into a Sikh-owned travel agency in Cedar-Riverside at dusk. He was 17 years old, a senior at Roosevelt High School. That night, he paid $1,300 in cash for a round-trip journey from November 4, 2008, to January 28, 2009. No one claims to know where he got the money. His itinerary had him departing from Minneapolis, connecting in Boston, flying on to Amsterdam, and then, finally, to Nairobi. From there he would make his way into Somalia.
Burhan shared an apartment with his mother, Zienab Bihie, on the 19th floor of the tallest tower in Riverside Plaza. His father had died in a car accident in Kuwait around the time that the civil war began in Somalia. Burhan fled the country with his mother, sister, and two brothers; they lived in Kenya for years before moving to Minneapolis in 1995. Thin, short, nearsighted, and perhaps all too aware of his own frailty, he began dreaming of becoming a doctor.
Burhan hadn’t told his mother that he planned to travel. On Election Day, he simply snuck out of his house—and the country. The Somali neighborhoods were raucous that evening as results indicating that Barack Obama would become the next president trickled in. Every time Zienab phoned Burhan, her calls went straight to voice mail. She thought he was out celebrating with his friends. She eventually fell asleep. But at 3 a.m., she bolted awake and ran into Burhan’s room. His luggage and laptop were missing. The latch on the cabinet where he stored his passport was unlocked. Burhan’s passport was gone.
Almost 10 years separated Burhan Hassan and Shirwa Ahmed, and no one I spoke to ever saw the boys together, but each spent a considerable amount of time at the Abubakar as-Saddique Islamic Center in south Minneapolis. Zienab hadn’t thought twice about that. She had taken comfort knowing that her son was at the mosque rather than in the streets being tempted by Somali gangs. That soon changed. Following news of Shirwa’s bombing and Burhan’s disappearance, the Abubakar mosque became a subject of speculation, suspicion, and contention in the Somali community. Burhan’s family alleged that individuals from the mosque were obstructing the FBI’s investigation. In late November, aviation authorities prevented Abubakar’s imam from boarding an airplane.
But it seemed unlikely that one mosque or one imam could convince two dozen young men to leave their jobs, their families, and their educations for a battlefield in Somalia. There needed to be a spark, an incident to transform religious vigor into militancy. The Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in December 2006 provided it.
In the months after the invasion, Somali politicians traveled throughout the diaspora, encouraging young men to come defend their country. In November 2007 an associate of the ousted Islamic Courts government gave a keynote address at the Minneapolis Convention Center in which he goaded the crowd: “Come to see us in Asmara [the capital of Eritrea]. Let us get to know each other. We will offer training. Then whoever wants to fight for two months, like the Eritreans used to do, can then go back to school.”
Paul Gill, a lecturer and terrorism expert at the University College in Dublin, believes that group psychology oftentimes provides a better template for understanding terrorism recruitment than religion does. While Burhan was apparently never seen with Shirwa, for instance, he had become good friends with a 19-year-old college student named Abdisalam Ali, who would leave for Somalia on the same day as Burhan.
When it comes to recruiting suicide bombers, “the group becomes the primary source of sustenance. It becomes more about group in-love than about hating America or hating the West,” Gill told me. “It’s much like joining the Marines or becoming a member of a football club: It’s hard to back out once you’re in. Suicide bombers don’t want to let their group down. When it comes down to the crunch they are not going to back away or defect.”
Burhan Hassan called home after a few weeks. His timing suggested that al Shabaab militants had a network of informers in Minneapolis. It was early December, and family members of the missing boys had announced a joint press conference with leading figures from Abubakar mosque. After weeks of the two sides trading barbs in the media, each would be able to air its suspicions and misgivings about the other. Just 30 minutes before it began, however, Burhan—along with two other boys—called home. They didn’t mention the press conference, but the tone of their voices conveyed the sense that they were having a good time back in Somalia. Maybe the boys weren’t in an al Shabaab training camp after all?
“No families wanted to put their sons in danger, so most of them canceled,” said Abdirizak Bihi, Burhan’s uncle. “This happened twice. Somebody here is obviously communicating with them and telling them what to do.”
Burhan called again a month later, this time with a more explicit request: that his family stop talking to reporters. “Do you want me to go to Guantánamo?” he asked his mother.
On March 11 the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs held an open hearing regarding the missing Somali boys. The deputy director for intelligence in the National Counterterrorism Center and the assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch were called to testify. Nongovernment witnesses included the youth director of a community center in Cedar-Riverside and an academic expert on Somalia. Bihi had also been invited, but he passed his invitation to Osman Ahmed, Burhan’s distant uncle, who described his nephew as “mentally and physically kidnapped.”
Over the ensuing days, six of the missing boys called home. They pleaded with their parents to stop giving interviews. On Friday the 13th, Burhan phoned. His older brother answered.
“Come back, Burhan. Please. You won’t be treated like a criminal.”
Burhan ignored his brother’s plea.
Burhan sounded robotic and unnatural when he called from Somalia. He said that all the media coverage had made him a target. If people thought that he belonged to al Shabaab, Burhan explained, they might try to kill him.
Burhan’s mother, Zienab, believed that al Shabaab was pressuring—perhaps even threatening—her son to convince his family to stop talking. She insisted to me that Burhan didn’t know anything about Somalia and didn’t speak Somali. She and other parents focused on portraying their children as Americans, even though their children had rejected America.
The tales of missing Somali youth—and their possible return to the United States as trained jihadists—strained the Somali community’s ties with other Minneapolis citizens. And the relationship wasn’t great to begin with. One controversy involved a number of Somali taxi drivers at the Minneapolis International Airport who refused, for religious reasons, to drive passengers carrying liquor in their baggage. “They’ve ruined the business,” a disgruntled taxi driver told me, referring to the Somali drivers, who, he added, “can’t even find the road under their feet.” In another case, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against a Somali-run charter school that mandated a prayer break on Friday. Now, with the FBI canvasing neighborhoods looking for information about the missing boys, Somalis were becoming suspicious of anyone who asked questions.
The sense of mistrust deepened in April, when the FBI raided Mustaqbal Express, a popular hawala, or money transfer office. Hawalas have flourished due to the absence of a banking system in Somalia and are the primary means through which members of the diaspora can send remittances back home. After 9/11 the FBI raided many of the hawalas in Minneapolis on suspicions that they were supporting al-Qaeda. The Patriot Act had made it a deportable offense to send remittances to any organization suspected of supporting terrorism, and some hawalas were forced to shut down.
Over time, new hawalas opened and by 2009 business was booming. Abdirahman Omar, the manager of Mustaqbal Express, told me that more than $300,000 moved through his office every month—and there are three other hawalas just down the hall. Between the hawalas and the Internet, Somali Americans have never felt more connected to their homeland. Yet Somalis around the world are no more unified now than in 1991, when the civil war broke out. “The sense of collective belonging for Somalis has been destroyed,” said Ahmed Samatar, dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Village Market Mall, the Somali mall in south Minneapolis that houses Mustaqbal Express, is a former factory since turned into a maze of windowless shopping aisles lined with bright dresses and head scarves. Men sip tea and play dominoes in the handful of restaurants, and the smell of sandalwood greets shoppers at the entrance. On the morning of April 8, FBI agents streamed through the entrance.
“I was sitting with a customer, doing someone’s tax forms, when 15 agents came in,” Abdirahman recalled. It was around 9:30 a.m. “They were wearing bulletproof vests that read ‘FBI’ across the chest. They had guns but they were friendly and polite.”
One customer abandoned his transaction and ran without waiting to get his change. The agents stayed for almost five hours, rummaging through files and computer drives. They seized business ledgers, receipts, and copies of the office’s hard drives, according to the warrant issued by the Eastern District of Missouri’s U.S. District Court. They asked Abdirahman about “certain individuals in the community” and whether he sent money to pirates. To his surprise, he said, “they never asked me anything about the missing youth.”
The FBI raided two other hawalas besides Mustaqbal that morning, and the raids reverberated deeply throughout the community. A month later, Abdirahman told me, business had been “affected a lot.” Remittances were down more than 50 percent. “People think we are in trouble and that we are targeted by the FBI. They don’t want to be on our records,” he said.
The FBI claimed publicly that the raids were unconnected to the missing youth. But it seems that no one in Minneapolis believes that. And to preempt the likelihood of finding themselves at the center of the ongoing terrorism investigation, Somalis are quick to point fingers at everyone else. In some ways, a prisoner’s dilemma has unfolded. “Some individuals are telling the FBI things that are not correct against other people,” Abdirahman said. “They go to the FBI agents and say wrong information about people who are innocent. They claim they are working for this guy, or these groups. Most of this is just personality or maybe clan issues.”
“There is a lot of mistrust,” Jeanine Brudenell, the Somali community liaison officer for the Minneapolis Police Department, told me. Plus “this population does not trust the police.” But like so many things affecting Somali Americans in Minneapolis, she thought it had more to do with Somalia than with the United States. “The Somalis are basing their experience with law enforcement not on what’s here, but on what they recall,” she said. “The police here wear the same color shirts that they used to wear back in Kenya in the refugee camps.”
“Everything that happens in Somalia plays itself out here,” she added.
I visited the Abubakar Islamic Center late one afternoon. The mosque, where some believed the missing boys had been recruited to go to Somalia and whose prayer leader had been placed on a no-fly list, displays none of the signature elements of Islamic architecture. It’s a two-story brick structure without arches, domes, or minarets. A roofing company and a church previously occupied the building.
Shortly after I came in through a pair of ochre metal doors, the call to prayer sounded. A poster tacked onto the wall advertised the website requestfatwa.org. Omar Hurre, the mosque’s 31-year-old executive director, was caught in rush hour traffic, so a receptionist in a dishdasha led me into a wedding hall at the back of the compound. Regal couches lined the walls, which were decorated with white drapes.
Hurre finally entered the room and asked that I call him Omar. He told me that his given name, Farhan, “is an old, nomadic name that is shared between boys and girls.” He spoke softly, and when I brought up the missing youth, he acted as surprised by their disappearance as many of the parents. “They were all good students who went to their high schools or universities, prayed, and took part in our youth programs,” Omar said. Burhan, he added, remained a particular mystery. “It was kind of a shock to everyone, if you will. He was not friends with anybody. He just concentrated on his education. He memorized the whole Quran here, and there was a big celebration. He was not interested in wars.”
Still, Omar explained, it made sense that these boys were tempted by jihad. “You see, all around, in America you see guys who were from Kosovo going back to fight against the Serbians and the Bosnians are doing the same. Even the Israelis are going back . . . to fight the Palestinians, and then coming back here. So it’s kind of understandable. The only thing people are wondering is ‘Who told them this?’ ‘Where did they get these feelings from?’ And you know what? They can get this from anywhere—guys calling from Somalia, YouTube recruitment videos, whatever.”
I told him that a few people believed that the mosque had channeled the boys to Somalia.
“If you dig a little deeper,” he replied, “you can see who is telling a lie and who is telling the truth.”
I asked Omar whether Burhan’s family, despite their harsh words toward Abubakar, would be welcome at the mosque if they wanted to come and pray.
“Actually, we have nothing against them. But we will not guarantee their safety from the community who prays here. So if they say they are coming, we would advise them not to,” Omar said. He chuckled and shrugged his shoulders. “Because there would be a lot of, at least, verbal attacks against them.”
In May, Burhan Hassan called home twice more. He sounded upbeat. “He was acting all happy,” Zienab told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “The last thing he said was, ‘Mom, how are you doing? I love you. I love my brothers and sister . . . I miss you a lot.’ ” Zienab hoped that her son had changed his mind.
But then, on Friday, June 5, a week after Burhan had been scheduled to graduate from Roosevelt High School, Zienab received another phone call. This time it wasn’t Burhan, however. The caller informed her that her son had been killed in Mogadishu.
Conflicting reports emerged. Some said a stray artillery shell had hit the house where Burhan was staying. But Bihi, Burhan’s uncle, alleged that al Shabaab had murdered him. Burhan had apparently told Zienab that he planned to leave Somalia soon and return to the United States. Bihi told Minnesota Public Radio, “Probably those people who recruited him would not have been happy to see him [back] here. . . . His reappearance in the United States, and in Minnesota, would have been a very big, important step into this investigation of the recruited children.”
Federal authorities had no way of confirming Burhan’s death, since war was raging in Mogadishu and al Shabaab controlled much of the city. But weeks later, al Shabaab released a video that showed Burhan in a white, collared shirt. He was smiling. Text at the bottom of the screen read “Shaheed Inshallah Burhan al-Amriki”: Burhan the American. A Martyr. God Willing.
Excerpted from the Virginia Quarterly Review (Winter 2010), a literary digest designed to spur discussion and a 2010 Utne Independent Press Award nominee for best international coverage and general excellence. www.vqronline.org