Conflicting accounts emerged Monday over how Burhan Hassan, a Minneapolis teenager who allegedly went to Somalia to fight with an Islamic terrorist group, was killed in his homeland.
Hassan was fatally shot Friday in Mogadishu, his family said. His uncle, Abdirizak Bihi, blamed the Al-Shabaab militia, saying a member of the group brought Hassan outside of the building where the boy was staying and shot him in the head.
Bihi said Burhan's killer likely wanted to make sure the boy wouldn't live to tell U.S. authorities who had radicalized him in the Twin Cities.
"Probably those people who recruited him would not have been happy to see him here," said Bihi, whose sister is Hassan's mother. "His re-appearance in the United States, and in Minnesota, would have been a very big, important step into this investigation of the recruited children."
Bihi said he learned from contacts in Somalia that Hassan was planning to leave Al-Shabaab and find his way to the U.S. embassy in Nairobi.
The FBI, which has been leading the investigation into the missing men, could not confirm Hassan's death and said it had no information that the teenager was planning to return to the U.S.
One acquaintance of Hassan offered a different account of Hassan's death. She said she heard from Somali-American fighters in Mogadishu that Hassan was killed by a stray bullet that struck his head when he stepped outside. Violence has besieged Mogadishu in recent weeks as rebel groups vie for power.
The woman, who is friends with some of the young Minnesotans fighting with Al-Shabaab in Somalia, says she talked to three of the fighters Monday morning by phone, just three days after Hassan's death. She asked them if they were responsible for Hassan's death. The men denied it, telling her: "Why would we kill our own brother?"
The source requested that her name be withheld because she did not want to face repercussions from the community for communicating with the young men.
The three fighters, all from Minnesota, told the woman they had been traveling with Hassan and had just arrived in Mogadishu when he was killed. They also believe Hassan died a martyr, the woman said.
If Hassan stayed on course in Minnesota, he would have graduated from Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis this past weekend. The studious, scrawny senior was enrolled in a special program that prepared students for entering the medical field, his family said, and he even spoke of attending Harvard one day.
That he would have left to join Al-Shabaab surprised his friends and mentors, some who doubted that he had the physical strength to fight or carry large weapons. His friends and family said he got sick with malaria some time after arriving in Somalia. The young woman said Hassan's role in the group was unclear. While others were training with the insurgency, Hassan would be sending instant messages to friends, she said.
Hassan's death has renewed a months-long feud between Hassan's family and the leaders of Abubakar As-Saddique, a Minneapolis mosque where many of the missing men, including Hassan, worshipped. Bihi, Hassan's uncle, challenged news reports that suggested Hassan's relatives attended a prayer service held Sunday at the mosque in honor of Hassan. "They lied that we were in their mosque," he said, referring to mosque leaders.
Bihi said he blames the mosque management for allowing his nephew to get into a situation that ultimately robbed him of his life.
"We are holding accountable Abubakar As-Saddique's imam and his team for the death of our son and the missing kids," he said. "Now we have a death and 20 to 30 others who are in the face of death," he said, alluding to the number of Minnesotans he thinks are fighting in Somalia.
The director of Abubakar As-Saddique did not return a phone call seeking comment Monday. But leaders there have said they had nothing to do with the disappearances of the young men, and that they send their condolences to the family.
Hassan's family was hoping the federal government would help bring the boy's body back to the United States. But they said they now realize it would be nearly impossible to retrieve it from a war zone controlled by extremists.
It's still unclear how many Americans are fighting with Al-Shabaab, which means "youth" in Arabic and is made of mostly young, hard-line Islamists who are trying to overthrow the Somali government. But federal authorities have said that they think about a dozen Minnesotans are among those fighting.
Out of the Minnesotan fighters, Burhan Hassan was the second confirmed death. Shirwa Ahmed, a U.S. citizen from Minneapolis, is believed to have blown himself up in a suicide bombing last October in Somalia.