Three Somali families tell similar stories: A son or nephew goes missing. A passport is gone. Days later the phone rings, and the teen says he's in Somalia.
But the phone call is abrupt and short on details.
And then, nothing.
Breaking their monthlong silence, relatives of three teenagers said Saturday they fear their loved ones are victims, brainwashed to return to Somalia to fight. The impoverished nation on the Horn of Africa is caught up in an Islamic insurgency and hasn't had a functioning government in 17 years.
"We are not sure who is responsible," said Hussein Samatar, a community leader and uncle to a 17-year-old who traveled to Somalia. "But we, as a community, believe they have to be held accountable."
Samatar and other relatives confirmed Saturday their loved ones left Minneapolis together on Nov. 4. The young men were identified as Burhan Hassan, 17, Mohamoud Hassan, 18, and Abdisalam Ali, 19.
Abdirizak Bihi, a community organizer and uncle to the 17-year-old, said at least three more young men left Nov. 4, and he knows of about six others who have left and traveled to Somalia over the last two years.
"This issue of missing children has been going on for quite some time," Bihi said. "We want our children back home."
One man who disappeared from Minneapolis earlier is believed to have killed himself in an Oct. 29 suicide bombing that killed more than 20 people in northern Somalia, according to a U.S. law enforcement official who spoke last week on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the case. That official confirmed that the FBI and Justice Department were investigating.
Another U.S. law enforcement official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said authorities are calling that case one of the first instances in which a U.S. citizen has acted as a suicide bomber.
Special Agent E.K. Wilson, an FBI spokesman in Minneapolis, said last week his office helped return the remains of a U.S. citizen to Minneapolis. He said the body was taken from the Oct. 29 bombing, but he would not confirm whether the remains were that of a suicide bomber or a victim. He would not confirm the name of the deceased.
Wilson has previously said the FBI is "aware that a number of individuals from throughout the U.S., and Minneapolis, have traveled to Somalia to potentially fight for terrorist groups."
He said Saturday the agency is working with families and community leaders to address their concerns. He did not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.
The three families who came forward Saturday said their loved ones were good children who went to school and attended Abubakar As-Saddique mosque.
Mahir Sherif, an attorney for the mosque, said the mosque and its leaders have not recruited anyone to fight in Somalia.
"They did not fund any trips. They didn't arrange for any meetings with anybody. They didn't encourage anybody to go there," he said. "They have done nothing."
Bihi, one of the organizers of Saturday's news conference, said the names of all three teens could be revealed because the families want the public to know about their children.
Family members said Burhan Hassan, the 17-year-old, was a senior at Roosevelt High School; 18-year-old Mohamoud Hassan was studying engineering at the University of Minnesota; and 19-year-old Abdisalam Ali was studying health care at the University of Minnesota.
The three teens knew each other and were friends, and Bihi said none of them could have afforded a plane ticket back to Somalia on his own. Each teen contacted his family only once after disappearing, saying he was either in Somalia or in its capital city of Mogadishu. The teens haven't been heard from since, Bihi said.
While speaking to reporters, Ali's mother began to cry, saying through a translator she was in great pain and couldn't put into words how it feels to lose her son this way.
Warsame Hassan, a brother-in-law to Burhan Hassan, called the disappearances horrible - especially since Somalis fled their homeland to escape violence and provide their children with a good education.
"We don't know who is behind this, and we are urging authorities to get to the bottom of this," Warsame Hassan said.
The Somali population in Minnesota was more than 24,000 in 2006, according to the U.S. Census. But local activists claim the actual number is higher.
Your support matters.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.