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Grand jury looks into missing Somali men

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The investigation into about a dozen Somali-American men missing from Minnesota has reached the level of a federal grand jury investigation. A number of men from the Twin Cities are believed to have gone back to Somalia to fight along with a terrorist group. 

The head of a mosque in Minneapolis says at least a dozen people who worship at his mosque have been called before a grand jury meeting in Minneapolis.

One witness who testified before the grand jury says he had only scant knowledge about the men who have apparently vanished. 

The young man says a few months ago, he received a phone call out of the blue from the FBI. The agent asked him if he had five minutes to talk at a coffee shop.

Minnesota Public Radio News agreed to protect the man's identity and alter his voice, because he feared reprisal from the federal government for talking about a sensitive investigation. 

The man says after receiving the phone call, he agreed to meet with investigators.

"I knew my right to say I need a lawyer, but when they said it was five minutes, I'm thinking, 'Hey, talk to the guys and see what they're looking for.' But that five changed to about45 (minutes) to an hour," said the young man.

The young man, who is a college student living in the Twin Cities, says the agents first asked him questions about his own background -- where he went to school and what he did for a living.

And then the questions shifted to the missing. The agents showed him a couple dozen pictures of men who appeared to be in their teens or 20s. He was able to pick out about five or six. By the end of the interview, the man says the agents began to, in his words, "interrogate" him.

"We know something is going on. You believe you're not telling us the truth, so you might want to tell us the truth. Is there something you're hiding from us?' I was like, no there isn't anything I'm hiding from you. I'm telling you all I know, and that's it,'" said the young man.

Raised in the United States, the man described himself as a proud American of Somali descent. He volunteers and worships at a large Minneapolis mosque, Abubakar As-Saddique, where many of the missing men also frequented. Several other young people who pray at the mosque have also been subpoenaed, starting in December.

The man says the FBI's questions scared him and made him feel like a criminal.

But when he testified at the grand jury hearing, the questions were not nearly as intense. He says he was not particularly close to any of the young men the prosecutor asked him about.

"We grew up together, some of them, went to high school together, played basketball together when we were young. We used to see each other in the streets. Just like normal kids, simple as that," said the young man.

The man says he completed his testimony within 10 minutes. The only concern he had about the grand jury was that every juror appeared to be white. He says he doesn't know if they would be as impartial as a racially mixed jury.

What's still unclear is whom the investigation is targeting. Relatives of the missing believe some recruited their sons and nephews to leave Minnesota and fight along with hard-line Islamists in Somalia.

The director of the Abubakar mosque in Minneapolis says he knows of about a dozen young people who were subpoenaed. 

Omar Hurre says he thinks the prosecutors are trying to find out who may have recruited the missing men. Hurre says he was told that some of the prosecutor's questions focused on Islamic institutions.

"Some of them were: Which mosque do you go to? Do you pray? Do the mosque people teach violence? Do they preach extremist ideology?'"

Grand juries meet behind closed doors. Their main purpose is to determine if there's enough evidence for a trial. Jurors, prosecutors and federal agents are barred from speaking about grand jury proceedings. Even witnesses are sometimes advised not to talk, although it is not against the law.

Former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger says he doesn't know anything about a grand jury investigation into the missing Somali-Americans. And he wouldn't comment on any strategy that investigators might be using. But he says in general, investigators often build their case by first questioning people with limited knowledge of what's going on.

"An investigator will start with people on the periphery on the situation, in order to find out from people on the edges if there is credibility to the allegations. You start on the periphery and move toward the center," explained Heffelfinger.

Leaders at the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque in Minneapolis say they have not met with the FBI yet but have extended the invitation. 

An FBI spokesman declined to talk about a grand jury investigation. 

So far, the investigation has centered on Somali-American men who are thought to have gone back to their homeland. But Minnesota Public Radio News has learned that federal authorities also believe that at least one Minneapolis man who does not have African ancestry has gone to Somalia to fight.

And rumors have been circulating for weeks that at least one Somali-American man who left to join the terrorist group Al-Shabaab has since returned to the United States. An FBI spokesman wouldn't confirm or deny the rumors, saying he didn't want to undermine the investigation.

But it's probably safe to say that if a suspected recruit for Al-Shabaab came back to Minnesota, he would have a hard time escaping notice. For the past few months, dozens of Somali-Americans who have been traveling abroad say immigration and customs officials have detained them for questioning -- sometimes for hours at length -- at airports upon re-entering the U.S. 

Meanwhile, a San Diego attorney who has represented Abubakar mosque has told MPR News he knows of at least one California man of Somali descent who has been subpoenaed to testify before a grand-jury in his city. 

The big question is if these grand juries will hear enough evidence to return an indictment.

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Minnesota Public Radio News reporter Sasha Aslanian contributed to this story.