Four years after federal authorities in the Twin Cities began investigating homegrown recruitment for the terrorist group al-Shabab, at least two additional men slipped away to Somalia as recently as July.
Federal authorities believe the Minneapolis men joined the group and are still in the East African nation.
The FBI's confirmation this week that a terrorist conduit continues to flow from Minnesota to Somalia perplexes members of Minnesota's Somali community, who have watched with dismay as young men have disappeared.
Among those missing is 19-year-old Mohamed Osman, who once called a leafy little cul-de-sac in south Minneapolis home.
Inside his family's two-story house, Osman's older cousin, Jamal Salim, recalled when the family realized that Osman, who graduated last year from Southwest High School, was missing.
"One day we're at home, like, 'Where is Mohamed?' " Salim said. "It's been two days, and we're thinking he's out with friends. The parents are going crazy. They think he's got arrested or something."
Salim said Osman's mother didn't realize her son was in Somalia until she received a visit from the FBI. Salim said his aunt was stunned.
As were earlier waves of about 20 Twin Cities men who federal authorities say enlisted with al-Shabab, the introverted Osman was especially secretive about his plans, his cousin said.
"It made me mad because he didn't speak to no relative about it," Salim said. "We're heartbroken about it because he's like our sibling. Imagine not knowing what's going on with your own brother — how he's been feeling, who he's been talking to, and what they're telling him. We lost a brother, and I don't know how to get him back."
Authorities say Osman and 20-year-old Omar Ali Farah left Minneapolis for Somalia on July 18.
Salim said Osman was religious — to the point of nagging Salim for not praying, and for not wearing the long white tunics favored by some devout Muslim men. Osman had no desire to go to college. He taught the Qur'an to kids at an Islamic school on Lake Street.
Osman's family didn't worry about him, because he appeared to be staying out of trouble.
Salim said he now regrets not intervening in his cousin's life.
"To me, it's like he made a stupid mistake," Salim said. "If he would have talked to the elders who were responsible for him, they would told him, 'What's the reason we brought you from Somalia if you're going to go back?' "
COMMUNITY LEADERS PUZZLED
What's even more puzzling to Somali-American community members is why someone would want to join al-Shabab now. Aside from the fact that it's a ruthless militia known to behead, amputate and bomb its victims, military pressure has forced al-Shabab to withdraw from several major cities it used to control.
"It's really surprising," said Saeed Fahia, executive director of the nonprofit Confederation of the Somali Community in Minnesota. "It doesn't even seem rational."
Fahia said only someone vulnerable would be duped into fighting for a badly losing team. He said most young Somali-Americans he knows are excited to return to their homeland to help its people.
"They are going back for business, to find work, to connect with their roots, to learn about the culture," Fahia said. "Mogadishu seems to be thriving."
But al-Shabab still needs a fresh supply of fighters and is willing to recruit from around the world, said E.K. Wilson, the FBI's supervisory special agent in charge of the massive federal investigation known as "Operation Rhino."
"While it seems like it's not the most opportune time to become a member of al-Shabab or fight under those circumstances, we are aware that there are continued efforts on the part of al-Shabab to take in and receive foreign fighters to reinforce their losses," he said.
Wilson would not say how many men have left Minnesota this year to join al-Shabab. But it's clear that the group has lost one of its main rallying points — a nationalistic appeal to Somalis around the world.
The earliest recruits who left Minnesota in 2007 said they enlisted to fight Ethiopian troops who they heard were raping Somali women and killing their countrymen. But the Ethiopian military has long left Somalia.
RELIGION A FACTOR
So religion appears to be al-Shabab's predominant battle cry. Al-Shabab's end game has always been to to radicalize its troops through its extreme interpretation of Islam, Wilson said.
One local figure who has emerged as an alleged recruiter in the plan to send Minnesota men overseas to fight is Omer Abdi Mohamed. Former Twin Cities recruits have testified at trial that he used his knowledge of the Qur'an to preach jihad. Mohamed pleaded guilty last year to being a part of the conspiracy, and this week a federal judge ordered him jailed while he awaits sentencing.
A big concern, said U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones, is that Mohamed may be still involved with the effort to send more men overseas to fight.
"There are indications that there are people who have traveled to Somalia, and he may have had some role in it," Jones said.
Mohamed's attorney said his client had nothing to do with it.
Federal authorities, however, note that Mohamed is in a position to influence young people through his association with an Islamic school on Lake Street in Minneapolis. It's the same school where Mohamed Osman, the 19-year-old traveler who left in July, taught the Qur'an.
Jones said the federal government, which has poured countless resources into the investigation, considers the pipeline a huge concern of national security.
"There are serious risks with this dynamic of people leaving the United States with U.S. passports, going to a foreign country, receiving training from a designated foreign terrorist organization and potentially coming back home," he said.
Jones said while the federal investigation has made important strides, including last week's conviction of its first case to go to trial, there are still some disaffected youth in the community who are vulnerable to being exploited.
He said "Operation Rhino" is anything but over.
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