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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Minnesota Mujahadeen

March 6 (Bloomberg)

-- Seven months ago, Mustafa Salat told his father he was taking his clothes to the laundromat near their apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota. He never returned.
Salat, 19, later called from his birthplace, Somalia, and said he was okay, though he wouldn’t discuss what he was doing in a country he left when he was one year old, according to his parents, Lul and Ali.

Salat’s parents, along with U.S. authorities, said they fear he and other young Somali-Americans from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area were recruited to train at terrorist camps and fight in Somalia’s civil war.

  • Now, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is concerned those Somalis may return to the U.S., where they are citizens, and plot terrorist attacks.
  • Those fears were heightened last week when Robert Mueller, the FBI director, said a Somali-American living in Minneapolis was “radicalized” in his hometown, went to Somalia and became the first known U.S. citizen to carry out a suicide bombing.

“I am like a dead person walking,” said Lul, 42, who asked that her last name not be used and spoke in Somali through an interpreter. She and her husband go to bed with the phone under the pillow, fearing bad news about their son, they said. “I am not sleeping,” Lul said.


FBI Interviews

The FBI said it has been interviewing relatives of the missing and monitoring other cities with large Somali populations such as Columbus, Ohio, and Seattle, for reports of disappearances.

The bureau wouldn’t comment on Salat or estimate the number of Somali-Americans who have disappeared. The FBI wouldn’t say whether those who went missing would face charges if they return.

  • At least 17 young men have vanished during the past two years from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and are believed to be in Somalia now, said Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul, a legal-aid organization.
  • Jonathan Evans, a counter-terrorism official in the U.K., recently raised concern in a newspaper interview that residents there had trained in camps in Somalia and had returned to Britain.
  • The FBI won’t say whether any of the Somali-Americans have returned to the U.S.
  • The FBI is concerned that there may be more Somalis who have disappeared and whose parents haven’t reported them as missing, said E.K. Wilson, a bureau spokesman in Minneapolis.

Senate Hearings

The disappearances also are raising concern among lawmakers. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who heads the Senate homeland security panel, plans a hearing March 11 on recruitment efforts in the U.S. by Somali groups.

Somali-Americans have gone to Somalia and trained there in terrorism camps associated with the militant group al-Shabaab, or “the Youth,” which has ties to al-Qaeda, said a U.S. counter- terrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Al- Shabaab was designated as a terrorist group last year by the U.S.

The official said al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda are closely connected and it is unclear which organization runs the Somali training camps.

U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops entered Somalia in 2006. Islamist and clan-based opposition militias began a guerrilla war against the Ethiopian occupation.

Ethiopian troops withdrew from Somalia in January after the occupation failed to end Somalia’s civil war, leaving much of the south of the country under the control of al-Shabaab.

Obama’s Inauguration

While al-Shabaab has focused its activities within Somalia, its aspirations may be expanding. The FBI investigated a possible threatened attack by the group that could have been directed at Washington, coinciding with President Barack Obama’s Jan. 20 inauguration.

The disappearances are worrisome because of the risk posed by citizens of the U.S. and U.K. who can travel freely and blend in with the population, terrorism analysts said.

“It’s a blinking yellow light that needs further attention before it deteriorates and becomes a dangerous opening for attack,” James Phillips, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington public policy organization, said in an interview.

The recruiting in the U.S. “raises the question of whether these young men will one day come home, and, if so, what they might undertake here,” the FBI’s Mueller said in a Feb. 23 speech in Washington.

Suicide Bomber

Mueller flagged the case of Shirwa Ahmed, 27, who lived in Minneapolis before going to Somalia, where he carried out a suicide bombing in October that killed at least 30 people, according to news reports. Ahmed was a naturalized U.S. citizen.


For their part, Salat’s parents said they don’t know if their son is involved with al-Shabaab.


Lul and three other mothers or grandmothers of missing young men have formed a group attempting to make sure the disappearances are reported, and to ensure that if their children return, they won’t be held by authorities. Other parents may not have reported disappearances for fear their children will be targeted by law enforcement, or that family immigration violations may come to light, said Jamal, who helped organize the mothers.


“If he comes back, I’m afraid he will be arrested,” Lul said of her son. “We don’t want him to be victimized again.”


Salat, a high school student, often asked questions about the food eaten in Somalia, and about universities there, his father said. He talked about wanting to become a nurse or police officer in the U.S., never about returning to Somalia.


Salat left behind some clothes and books in Arabic on a shelf in a room with a bunk bed that he shared with his brother Zacharia, 17.

‘Indoctrinated’

Lul said someone “indoctrinated” her son, though she isn’t sure who persuaded him to travel to Somalia.

  • Jamal said those he knows of who disappeared had attended a Minneapolis mosque, the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center.
  • Omar Hurre, director of the center, said the mosque played no role and that he has urged anyone with knowledge of what happened to come forward.
  • “We don’t know where they picked up those ideas,” Hurre said in an interview. “Attending the mosque programs does not in any way, shape or form mean we had anything to do with this.”

Even so, he said the mosque’s imam and a leader of its youth group were placed on the U.S. government’s no-fly list, preventing them from traveling to Mecca. Amy Kudwa, a Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman, said the department doesn’t comment on those on the no-fly list.

Another member of the mothers’ group, Fadumo Elmi, said through an interpreter that her grandson, Mahamoud Hassan, 18, disappeared in November. In the days before he disappeared, Hassan brought Elmi money to help pay for clothes and shoes for an Islamic celebration, she said.

Hassan called Elmi from Somalia last month. She told him to come back. He said he couldn’t, Elmi said. He also wouldn’t answer questions about what he was doing in Somalia.


“His mind was taken by something we don’t know,” said Elmi, as she wiped away tears using her head covering. “They forced him out of my hand.”


To contact the reporter on this story: Justin Blum in St. Paul, Minnesota at jblum4@bloomberg.net

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