Online tools may have been used to recruit young Somalis

An Al-Shabaab Web site http://www.kataaib.info
This screengrab is from an Al-Shabaab Web site used for promoting their mission.
Screenshot taken from http://www.kataaib.info

The FBI is looking into whether a group of Twin Cities men were recruited to fight in Somalia. But still unclear is who was responsible for spreading extremist ideology. Is there a recruiter lurking in the community? Or were the young men targeted through the Internet?

Sharmarke Jama was amused when two FBI agents showed up at his Minneapolis apartment. They wanted to ask him about a recent trip he took to Toronto.

Sharmarke Jama
Sharmarke Jama, 26, was recently questioned by FBI agents, apparently in response to the disappearances of a group of young Somali-American men from Minnesota. He says it didn't take long for the FBI to realize he didn't fit the profile of a new recruit for terrorism.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

The University of St. Thomas grad thinks the authorities stopped him as part of an ongoing investigation into the missing Somali-American men.

"It took a couple of minutes to realize I don't exactly fit the profile they were looking for," Jama said. "They asked me which mosque I attended, and I kind of laughed because I couldn't remember the last time I attended a mosque."

Jama looks urban-chic, wearing a black and white Puma jacket and jeans. He was born in Somalia, grew up in the United Arab Emirates, and now manages his family's daycare center in Minneapolis.

In his mind, the typical profile of a recruit is someone who is already fallible -- someone who feels anxious or disillusioned about his place in the United States, or someone who is at a religious crossroads in his life.

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

While Jama is no expert on terrorism, a recent report confirms his instincts.

Michael Jacobson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy helped convene a task force on ways to counter radical extremism. Last week it recommended the U.S. engage in broader community outreach with mosques and Muslim community leaders.

Riverside Plaza
The towers of Riverside Plaza in Minneapolis are home to about 1,300 units -- many of them occupied by Somali-Americans. One of the young missing men, 17-year-old Burhan Hassan, lived in the towers.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Jacobson said there are many paths to radicalization -- and many types of would-be radicals. But in general, he agrees that those most vulnerable include individuals who might not feel socially integrated into their communities.

"What happens often is you have frustrated young people, who feel excluded and have identity issues," Jacobson said. "And you've got somebody who is able to connect the frustrations and grievances they have in their individual lives to some global narrative."

The "global narrative" Jacobson refers to is the backbone of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. It contends that the West is at war with Islam and that the Muslim world must defend its religion through violence.

Jacobson said recruiters are quietly on the lookout for prospects. The initial contact point might be a place like a mosque, but then it moves to other locations, such as private homes, bookstores and gyms.

"There are all sorts of places where this could take place," he said.

Many of the dozen or so missing men from Minnesota worshipped at Abubakar As-Saddique mosque in south Minneapolis. Leaders there say they are confident recruitment didn't happen under their roof. After talking to young people at the mosque, they say the Internet is a likely culprit.

Counterterrorism experts say militant Islamist groups like Al-Shabaab in Somalia have ramped up their cyber activities. Al-Shabaab's recruitment in the U.S. will be the subject of a Senate Homeland Security committee hearing next week.

Ahmed Hassan
Ahmed Hassan is a Somali community liaison for Minneapolis police.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

A propaganda video for Al-Shabaab on YouTube shows fighters firing off rounds of mortar, set to the music of Arabic chanting. At the very end of the clip, the credits say public-relations department of Al-Shabaab is responsible for the message. It also offers a plea that roughly translates into, "Don't forget us in your prayers."

But while these videos may be disturbing, experts say online chat rooms that provide two-way communication are much more dangerous. Yet they're also difficult to find. Web sites regularly vanish and reappear with a different domain name.

And then there's an old-fashioned invention that could have reached impressionable minds: the telephone.

Ahmed Hasaan is a Somali community liaison for the Minneapolis police. He's got an ear to his cell phone while standing outside of a community center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. Behind him looms a pair of colorful high-rise towers where thousands of Somalis live.

Hassan is demonstrating how to dial into a phone-conferencing system popular with young Somalis. But on this recent afternoon, hardly anyone seems to be chatting.

"This is very strange because at night here, it's very busy," Hasaan said. "It has hundreds of rooms where people can go and ... talk about whatever they want."

Hassan said he eavesdrops on phone chat rooms as part of his job to gather tips. Many of the people who call live in the Twin Cities, and he's heard of similar chat rooms for religious people.

"Maybe this is how they get brainwashed. We don't know," he said.

But for one grieving uncle, talk about phone-conferencing and Internet chat rooms seems beside the point.

Osman Ahmed said there's no doubt in his mind that a human being in Minnesota recruited Burhan Hassan, his 17-year-old nephew, to go to Somalia. He said Hassan was a typical American kid who got good grades and dreamed of becoming a doctor. Then, Ahmed believes, somebody got into his nephew's head and those of others.

"We believe some group or some people hijacked their ideology, brainwashed, financed [the trips] and recruited for their terrorism groups," Ahmed said.

Ahmed believes someone lured his nephew with lies and false promises. And if his nephew was indeed brainwashed, he thinks the recruiter should be held responsible -- and Burhan Hassan should be allowed to come home safely, without arrest.