Somalis worried after suicide bomber details emerge

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III
FBI Director Robert Mueller.
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Abdisalam Adam was taken aback when a nearby business owner confronted him a few weeks ago about what was going on in his mosque.

Adam is director of the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center on the West Bank of Minneapolis. It's not the same mosque that has been associated with a number of missing men from the Twin Cities, but it didn't stop the West Bank merchant from questioning Adam about a possible connection.

And now that the FBI director has confirmed that Shirwa Ahmed of Minneapolis allegedly became a terrorist suicide bomber in Somalia, Adam worries about the community's image.

"Definitely, we are concerned," Adam said. "When a statement of such a high level comes from the government, a lot of people will take it literally, even if it doesn't point to a particular person or place (that was responsible for the recruiting). We are very vulnerable post-Sept. 11."

As federal authorities continue to investigate the disappearances of a number of young Twin Cities men, some Somalis say the climate feels similar to the months following 9/11.

Mueller on Monday told the independent Council on Foreign Relations that authorities believe Ahmed, a naturalized U.S. citizen, "was radicalized in his hometown in Minnesota."

A Minneapolis mosque frequented by Ahmed and some of the missing men has reported receiving hateful phone calls in recent weeks. Leaders of the Abubakar As-Saddique center have invited the public -- including Mueller -- to a dinner and open house Wednesday night.

Tomorrow's event is intended to provide an opportunity for dialoge -- especially between the mosque and its neighbors, said Jessica Zikri, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota chapter of the Council on Islamic-American Relations. Zikri said many Somalis are living in fear as federal authorities continue their investigation into the missing.

"They've already been receiving phone calls and were stopped by the FBI," Zikri said. "And then hearing these allegations vaguely connected to Minnesota just add fuel to the fire."

Many Somalis in Minnesota have had a hard time believing that young men raised in the Twin Cities would go back to fight in a country plagued with anarchy and bloodshed, a country that their parents fought so hard to flee.

Those skeptics have blamed individuals within the local Somali community for inflaming or exaggerating the issue. One man who has received the brunt of the criticism is Omar Jamal, a longtime Somali activist.

But Jamal said his own concerns about homegrown radicalism are now validated.

"By sheer admission from the FBI, that Shirwa left here, was indoctrinated in Minneapolis and blew himself up, for us is something real," Jamal said. "In the beginning, people might have thought this is not true, this cannot happen. But now, it did happen."

Still, it's important to remember that suicide bombing in Somalia is a new phenomenon. That's something that just about everyone, including Jamal, can agree on.

"It's totally disgusting and something we never thought anyone in our community would do," said community organizer Hashi Shafi.

At the Somali-owned Casablanca Restaurant in Minneapolis, two friends in their 20s recently discussed the politics of their homeland over cups of tea.

Sharmarke Jama, 26, said many Somali-Americans bitterly opposed the 2006 Ethiopian invasion of their homeland. Jama, and his friend, Ramla Bile, said they heard stories about the Ethiopian troops raping Somali women and looting property. And they said it's not surprising that some Somali-Americans were moved to action.

"But you heard it in the sense of, 'I want to go back to Somalia and bring change,'" Jama said. "But then the suicide bombing changed the dynamics. I think it scared a lot of people. It was seen as something so anti-Somali."

Ramla Bile agreed.

"We joke about that, actually, that we love life too much," she said. "In our history of having freedom fighters and fighting colonialism, suicide fighting is something completely unheard of.

"It's sort of something that speaks to the Iraq effect in Somalia, where the U.S. essentially supported this proxy war with Ethiopia and Somalia, and then you started seeing the radicalization of the movement that completely mirrors what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan."

And now, Bile said wonders what the general public might think of Somalis in Minnesota.

While she was riding a light-rail train recently, Bile said she overheard a group of men harassing a teen-age Somali boy, telling him that his people were terrorists and that they didn't deserve to be here.

Minneapolis police spokesman Sgt. Jesse Garcia says the department has not seen an uptick in hate crimes directed at Somalis in recent months.

However, many questions still remain. The FBI's Mueller didn't specify who had recruited suicide bomber Shirwa Ahmed while he was living in Minneapolis, and that lack of detail is perplexing an entire community searching for answers.

Ahmed Farah, the co-host of a local community talk show on Somali TV, said he doesn't feel like he knows much more about the case of the missing men than he did a few days ago.

"How did these guys recruit? Who visited them? Where are these people at? Are they still in the Twin Cities? Are there still people who are doing such a thing? I mean, the questions are still there," Farah said.

But on a positive note, Somalis in Minnesota say they're optimistic that the larger community will understand that an entire community isn't to blame for the actions of a few.

On Wednesday, outreach workers with the Department of Homeland Security in Washington D.C. will meet with Somali activists as a first step in building trust in the community.

And Abdisalam Adam, the director of the West Bank mosque, said most Minnesotans are showing restraint and are waiting for the investigation into the missing to play out.

Adam said that one fearful neighbor who harbored suspicions about his mosque eventually sat down with him, got to know Adam, and even apologized.