Allegations that a 26-year-old Chanhassen man lied about a cross-country road trip with a group of friends last week have made some Somali-Americans worry that even more young Minnesota men are still trying to join the escalating warfare in their homeland.
But this time, the travelers may be taking more creative approaches. Two men involved in the road trip were seen at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to federal authorities.
"I think it's not unrealistic to at least wonder whether the individuals that were allegedly with Mr. Abdow intended to leave this country, ultimately with the intent of heading to Somalia," said Stephen Smith, a Minneapolis attorney representing several community members interviewed by the FBI.
A court document made available today reveals that a federal grand jury has indicted Abdow Munye Abdow, a married father of two, on two counts of providing false statements to FBI agents. The indictment became public one day after Abdow made his first federal court appearance in St. Paul and authorities unsealed a criminal complaint providing details of his road trip.
The FBI has confirmed that Abdow's case is connected to the broader investigation into whether Somali-American men traveled to their homeland to fight alongside a terrorist group.
Abdow's rental car was pulled over by a Nevada state trooper on Oct. 6. Two of Abdow's passengers were seen two days later at the U.S.-Mexico border crossing near San Diego with plane tickets from Tijuana to Mexico City, according to the complaint. It's unclear where the travelers were ultimately headed.
Many Somali-Americans and close observers of the broader investigation expressed shock Wednesday about the recent charge against Abdow. After all the media attention and federal resources given to the case of the missing men, they said they couldn't believe people would think they could outsmart the FBI.
They also were stunned that more young men were possibly aspiring to follow the footsteps of up to 20 missing Minnesota men who allegedly joined forces with the terrorist group al-Shabaab in Somalia.
While friends of the first wave of men who left in 2007 believed the young fighters were lured to the insurgency by a sense of nationalism and anger over Ethiopian troops who had occupied Somalia at the time, that argument doesn't hold up now. That's because the Ethiopian army pulled out of Somalia at the beginning of this year. Three men with Minnesota ties have pleaded guilty in the case and face years of prison time.
"I think at this point, the cat's out of the bag," said Smith, the attorney. "Everyone can appreciate that being involved in an armed struggle in Somalia is illegal conduct, according to the laws of this country."
Community activist Omar Jamal said the criminal complaint indicates that the pipeline of men leaving the U.S. for Somalia is still "active and ongoing."
Gandi Mohamed, 29, of Minneapolis said if the men in Abdow's car believed they could go to Somalia by way of Mexico, he was relieved that U.S. law-enforcement officials were "smarter or at least as smart" as them.
Mohamed, who served in the U.S. Air Force, said community members won't tolerate the extremist ideology espoused by al-Shabaab, or would-be recruits from Minnesota.
"I hope [U.S. authorities] have great evidence against these people and put them away for good if they did what they supposedly did," Mohamed said. "In Minnesota, my peers who are Somali are against al-Shabaab. We really don't like what they do back home. Their ideology here doesn't fly, and [it's] going to die out," he said.
Still, it's unclear what happened to the four passengers in Abdow's car. An FBI spokesman would not say whether some succeeded in leaving the country or if they were in custody now.
One Somali-American community member said he believes he knows two of the passengers, who were identified by their first names in a criminal complaint. The source, who requested anonymity because he didn't want to draw attention to himself in a highly sensitive investigation, said the two men, both in their 20s, defended al-Shabaab in conversations with him.
"They were all arguing with me," the source said. "We were talking for an hour and a half, and they were trying to persuade me that these people [al-Shabaab] were doing good work. I said, 'Listen, I'm not taking this [baloney]. I have to go.'"
Fred Goetz, an attorney representing Abdow Abdow, noted that his client is faced with just the charge of providing false statements. Authorities accuse him of lying about the number of people in his rental car and telling FBI agents he not know who rented the car, when records show he paid for it, according to an affidavit by an agent.
Goetz described Abdow as "a young man, with no prior exposure to the criminal justice system, who found himself in very frightening and intimidating circumstances and may have given some ill-advised and frightened answers to questions."
Abdow is a surgical technician at Fairview Southdale Hospital and also works part-time as a personal-care attendant, Goetz said. He is expected to plead not guilty at an arraignment later this month.
In other developments, FBI agents are continuing to interview individuals with knowledge of a woman whose apartment was searched by FBI agents in July. The woman, who runs a secondhand clothing drive, told MPR News that the agents were investigating a tip that she was supporting insurgent groups in her native Somalia.
The woman denied it, saying she regularly sends money and clothing to internally displaced refugees who have fled the escalating violence in Mogadishu. The FBI has confirmed that the raid was related to the broader investigation into the missing.
It appears that the federal probe is not only tracking which American men left to fight in Somalia, and who facilitated those trips, but also who locally may be supporting extremist groups in Somalia, by way of donations or other means.
FBI spokesman E.K. Wilson said: "All those issues are being considered under the umbrella of the investigation."