Phone calls from missing Somalis send mixed messagesby Sasha Aslanian, Minnesota Public Radio,
Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
When a group of young Somali men disappeared from Minneapolis back in 2007, they weren't on the FBI's radar yet. The FBI is now investigating whether about a dozen young men went to Somalia to fight with Al-Shabaab, a militant group with ties to Al-Qaeda that the U.S. has labeled a terrorist organization.
When the first group of Minneapolis men left, they didn't tell their friends back home exactly what they were doing. Instead, they appeared homesick, calling their friends to ask for news, and saying they missed Starbucks and the Internet.
Minneapolis — While it has been difficult for outsiders to piece together the names of the dozen or so men who disappeared, Ruqia Mohamed, Samiya Ahmed and Sahra Qaxiya know most of them by name, nickname, Facebook and family.
In an empty University of Minnesota classroom where Mohamed and Ahmed are students, the three talk about the men now believed to have joined a terrorist group. Ruqia Mohamed rattles off descriptions of her missing friends.
"Zakaria [Maruf] was one of those type of people who does things 100 percent. He'll be 100 percent happy, or he'll be 100 percent mad," said Ruqia Mohamed.
Maruf loved to debate. He could be argumentative, Mohamed remembered, and had brushes with the law.
"I think he also had lot of anger," said Mohamed. "I didn't understand half of the anger that he had because I don't understand his background. Maybe things he went through made him the person he was."
But not all the young men seemed troubled. Mohamed said Mohamoud Hassan, an engineering student at the University of Minnesota who left in 2008, was a charming class clown at Roosevelt High.
Mohamed recalled one incident on the school bus around the time of their high school graduation.
"Snake," as his friends called Hassan, "gets up and [starts] beating on the window and everyone starts singing stuff. And he starts fake crying, 'I remember all the time we spent together,' singing the whole song over and over again. He was a fun, crazy, hyper person," said Mohamed.
Abdisalam Ali, or "Bullethead," also graduated from Roosevelt and attended the University of Minnesota. He was a strong math student, and Qaxiya tutored him in biology because she had taken the class the previous semester.
"When I really got to know him, he left," said Qaxiya. She joked that if only she had avoided him, she wouldn't have gotten dragged into the investigation.
Mohamed described Ahmed Ali Omar as a helpful son who helped his mother with his younger siblings, and raised money for struggling Somali families to buy food.
Burhan Hassan, the youngest to depart, was a studious, quiet senior at Roosevelt.
"You would never see him jump up and down or play around," said Mohamed. "He would just be really quiet. If he said something it would be really important, or he wouldn't say anything at all."
After some of the men left for Somalia in 2007, they kept in touch by cell phone. Every couple of weeks, Mohamed said she and other friends would get a call from one of the missing men.
"The conversations were never about serious political things," Mohamed recalled.
The young men asked for news and sounded homesick.
"I remember one of guys complaining about the food situation over there," Mohamed said. "He told me that he'd do anything to get a fast-food restaurant, like a McDonald's."
Or a Frappacino.
"One guy was caffeine-addicted," said Mohamed, "and when he came there, he just had headaches all the time and he wanted to get a Starbucks."
Somalia was a shock to their systems. Some complained of malaria.
FROM 'FREEDOM FIGHTER' TO TERRORIST
In 2006, Somalia was invaded by neighboring Ethiopia, triggering a patriotic response from Somalis worldwide. Mohamed thinks her friends saw themselves as "freedom fighters" but became disillusioned with their mission.
"I remember one of them kind of saying that he hated the weather, and he hated the place ... and he wanted to come back home and he didn't know how his parents would take it because he didn't tell them anything. He just ran off," Mohamed said.
She recalls counseling him: "That's parents, they would do anything to see you again. You make a mistake. Initially they might be angry, but to get you back would be a big thing."
That was in February of 2008. Shortly after that, the U.S. State Department designated Al-Shabaab, the hard-line Islamic militia the men were believed to have joined, as a terrorist group.
The three women say that's about the time the phone calls ended.
In October 2008, Shirwa Ahmed, another Somali-American from Minneapolis, blew himself up in a suicide bombing. In November, more young men disappeared.
The FBI tracked down friends of the missing to see what they knew. What the women viewed as casual cell phone conversations were now potential links to a terror cell.
In December, Sahra Qaxiya was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury investigating the matter. She thinks she was one of the first people to receive a subpoena.
"This was the first time I actually saw an FBI badge," she said. "I had seen 'CSI Miami' or some show like that, and I'm like, 'Whoa, that's how it looks?'"
All three women were approached by the FBI. Qaxiya and Mohamed testified before the grand jury.
Going back through their memories, the women did find clues. They say their friends had been skipping lots of school before they left, and were working incessantly to save up money. The young men were secretive.
The women say they don't know who persuaded their friends to go to Somalia. The FBI and grand jury interrogations suggested the investigation was closing in on local mosque leaders.
Ruqia Mohamed doesn't find that plausible. She was a youth leader at Abubakar As-Saddique, a south Minneapolis mosque that many of the young men attended. The federal government put the mosque's spiritual leader, Sheik Abdirahman Ahmed, on a no-fly list last fall.
Mohamed said Ahmed would be one of the least likely people to recruit young fighters for Somalia's civil war. In fact, she said, young people at the mosque complained that the imam took too little interest in Somali politics.
"He just completely avoided that," she said. "He didn't like to talk about things that were controversial, or divided people. He was more, 'Let's talk about things we have in common, things that we can do here.'"
AN OFF-LIMITS HOMELAND
All three women can relate to the young men's desire to return to Somalia, even to visit. Samiya Ahmed, a student at Normandale Community College, left Somalia at the age of 4 and has few memories of the place.
"But I want to go back to see where I'm from," Ahmed said. "Any other person in my place would want to do that."
But Ahmed feels she can't say that anymore. She said she didn't know how to answer investigators when they asked her if she was thinking of going back.
"I hestitated on that question like I was afraid, as if it was a crime on answering that question," Ahmed said.
The women say they've been hesitant to talk publicly about their contact with the missing men, in part because it pains the families. The families of the missing are mainly speaking to the media through a team of tribal uncles.
Behind the scenes, Qaxiya says, there's a world of pain and guilt about the high-stakes investigation the families set in motion.
"If their kids are being labeled as terrorists, it kind of makes the parents step back and say, 'Should we have told? Or should we have just kept our mouths shut?' And 'What would have been better for our kids?'" Qaxiya said.
As these women await the outcome of the investigation and hope for the safe return of their friends, Ruqia Mohamed says her missing friends probably had no idea how many other people would be affected as well.
"The whole FBI thing just threw me out of balance," she said, adding that she couldn't focus on her studies. "It took a big toll on my life."
Mohamed said she hasn't heard from any of the men since last May. A Facebook message she sent to one man who has reportedly returned from Somalia went unanswered.
- All Things Considered, 04/15/2009, 5:20 p.m.
Sasha Aslanian is a reporter with MPR News' Twin Cities metro reporting unit.