Missing Somali men may have romanticized their homeland

Women pray
Girls and young women pray at the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Mohamud Galony was born 23 years ago in Somalia. But he grew up playing basketball and PlayStation in Minneapolis.

And while he can speak Somali, he thinks in English.

Ramla Bile
University of Minnesota graduate Ramla Bile says she first heard about the missing men about a month before news broke in the mainstream media.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

He says the same goes for his 18-year-old nephew, Mustafa Ali.

"He doesn't know a whole lot about Somalia," Galony said. "He grew up in Michigan and here. He's the kind of kid who's into video games. Even right now, it's still a myth to us, that my little nephew is in Somalia."

Ali disappeared last August from his St. Paul home. He told his sister he was going to the laundromat but never came back.

Galony often thinks what is going through his nephew's mind.

"I could really see Mustaf waking up right now, saying, 'What did I get myself into?'"

"I could really see Mustaf waking up right now, saying, 'What did I get myself into? How can I go back home to my family?" Galony said.

Ali's disappearance has unleashed intense speculation within the Somali community about what may have happened.

Ramla Bile, wearing a copper-colored hijab and a billowing skirt, blends into an industrial-hip Somali restaurant in Minneapolis. Bile grew up in the Twin Cities suburb of Apple Valley and graduated from the University of Minnesota.

She has been following every twist of the story as a reporter for the community radio station KFAI -- and as the co-founder of United Somali Movement, a group whose members are all under 35.

Even though Bile is an insider to the community, it's been hard to nail down the facts.

"Before the story had broke out, we knew for about a month that this had happened and that people had left," she said. "But I think what we were ignorant of, or what was a complete mystery to us was: Who? Who funded [the trips]? Who recruited?"


Bile says she vaguely understands why the young men may have left. She says people had been talking about bringing change to wartorn Somalia for a long time. And the U.S.-backed invasion of Somalia by Ethiopian troops in 2006 rallied her community.

Bile says a response was "inevitable."

Somali hub
The Casablanca Restaurant in Minneapolis has become a popular place for Somali-Americans, young and old, to talk politics. Dr. Mohamed Rashid, of Somaliland, left, sits next to Imam Sheikh Sa-ad Musse Roble, center, a spiritual leader of a Minneapolis mosque.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"We were hearing stories of rapes and looting of civilian property," she said. "It didn't surprise me, actually, that there were some in the community who felt this was an appropriate way to engage with this conflict."

She thinks some young men in her community must have romanticized the idea of "liberating" their homeland. Families of the missing suspect their sons and nephews have joined forces with an Islamic militia known as Al-Shabaab. It means, literally, "The Youth."

But perhaps few Somali-Americans understood just how dangerous this group was. A string of attacks last October changed everything.

FBI chief Robert Mueller last week confirmed that authorities think 27-year-old Shirwa Ahmed of Minneapolis blew himself up last fall in Somalia -- and the FBI thinks someone recruited him in Minnesota. Ahmed is believed to be the first U.S. citizen to carry out an overseas terrorist suicide bombing.

Last month, Al-Shabaab carried out a suicide attack in Mogadishu, killing at least a half-dozen Burundi peacekeepers.


Nimco Ahmed, 26, no relation to Shirwa Ahmed, remembers the moment when she first learned what became of her old high school friend. She had picked up a newspaper last fall and saw Shirwa Ahmed's picture. She called up a mutual friend that day.

"I don't know if you checked the paper today, but Ahmed is dead," she recalls telling her friend. "They just brought his body back from home."

Nimco Ahmed, who now works as a policy aide for the Minneapolis City Council, says she lost touch with Shirwa Ahmed after high school. But from a distance, she noticed a quiet transformation.

"He looked different. He grew a big beard," she said. "Ahmed got quite a bit religious. And there's nothing wrong with it. It's actually seen very positively in our community."

Ahmed says everyone, including her, is torn by the humanitarian crisis in her homeland. But while she is hopeful that education and advocacy will eventually bring stability to Somalia, she thinks her old friend must have felt despair or anger.

"Even as young adults, I think we ought to be responsible for our actions," she said. "Ahmed was smart, and if there were people who recruited him to do this, he should have talked to someone and asked for help."


Tucked next to a bar on the West Bank of Minneapolis is Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center. It's just past 6 p.m. on a Friday, and the student group is holding a weekly meeting. They're planning a youth conference, and they produce a monthly newspaper for the mosque.

Fartun Ahmed, a first-year student at Century College, is leading the meeting.

Ahmed says the recent disappearances have created a backlash against mosques. She learned this while handing out her newspaper to Somali women at a local mall. One of the woman declined, saying she would not read the publication because it came from a mosque.

"When I asked her [why], she was like, 'Because of the boys who left,'" Ahmed said. "And that kind of shocked me. That was the first time I heard that it was even associated with a mosque. I go to a mosque, and I'm here almost every day, literally, and nobody takes me into a corner and brainwashes me."

Ahmed says while she doesn't understand why the young men left, she says many young Somali-Americans are struggling with an identity crisis.

"Most of us now have grown up in this country, but I mean, going to a public school where 90 percent of the class doesn't look like you or doesn't speak the same the same language as you -- we're Muslims, we pray five times a day, and not everybody does that. So you're going to struggle."

Ahmed's friend, Maryan Yusuf, says the disappearances have been a wake-up call for Somali families.

"One good thing that came out of it was that now the parents are realizing, 'What are the problems with the youth?'" Yusuf said. "They want to be active in it. They want to know what's going on. They want to help."

Yusuf says her parents don't have to worry about her boarding a plane to Somalia.

She hasn't been dwelling too much on terrorist attacks. Yusuf and the other members of the student group say they're too busy planning a youth conference and a bake sale.