(AP) - As thousands of Twin Cities Somalis gathered Monday to celebrate an important holiday on the Muslim calendar, their leaders expressed sympathy for the families of several young men who are missing and may have gone to Somalia to fight.
Mahir Sherif, an attorney for the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, a large Minneapolis mosque serving mostly Somalis, told reporters the mosque's board "understands and shares the pain and grief that the worried and concerned families of the missing young men are experiencing."
"We encourage other parents who may suspect their children of having similar plans to seek professional help," Sherif said. "Should they seek our help, we are here to do whatever we can."
On Saturday, relatives of three missing teenagers held a news conference to air their concerns. They said they knew of at least 12 young men who had gone to Somalia over the past two years, including six who left Minneapolis on Nov. 4.
One local Somali man is believed to have committed a suicide bombing that killed more than 20 people in northern Somalia Oct. 29, according to a U.S. law enforcement official.
The official, who was not authorized to talk publicly about the case and spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed to The Associated Press last month that the FBI and Justice Department were investigating.
Minnesota is home to one of the largest Somali communities in the United States. The U.S. Census estimated it at more than 24,000 in 2006, but leaders say it is much bigger.
Sherif, a San Diego attorney, urged reporters not to jump to conclusions about the missing young men or their rumored connections to the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque.
"Suicide and other acts of terrorism are forbidden by the Islamic faith," he said. "The AAIC does not engage in any political activity. It has not, and will not, recruit for any political cause. There never has been, nor will there ever be, any support for terrorists, their radical philosophy, or their acts by the AAIC. The center unequivocally condemns suicide bombings and all acts of indiscriminate violence."
Sherif was joined at a news conference by Abdirahman Ahmed, the spiritual leader of the mosque.
The imam and one of his youth coordinators were recently denied permission to fly to Saudi Arabia to take part in the annual Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca because, Sherif said, they are unfairly on the U.S. no-fly terrorist watch list. Sherif said they think they're on the list because of rumors about the missing men. He said he was working to get them off the list.
Christopher White, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Agency, said the TSA does not confirm whether any individual is on or is not on a watch list.
White said fewer than 2,500 people worldwide are on the no-fly list, and more than 90 percent of them are not U.S. citizens or residents. He said individuals who believe they are on a watch list unfairly can apply to the TSA for redress.
The attorney said he had no information to lead him to conclude that young men have been recruited at the Abubakar As-Saddique center to fight in Somalia, an impoverished nation on the Horn of Africa that's long been wracked by civil war and has not had a functioning central government since 1991.
Sherif said it was likely that all young Somali men in the Twin Cities have been to the mosque because it provides so many services and programs.
Sherif also said young people get their information from a variety of sources, and he suggested that the Internet and text messages are likely the top terrorist recruiting tools.
Ahmed did not speak to reporters. He led the large, mostly Somali crowd at the Minneapolis Convention Center in prayers and chants of "God is great" in Arabic as they faced in the direction of Mecca to mark Eid al-Adha, which marks the end of the pilgrimage and commemorates the readiness of Abraham to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to God.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)