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Relatives of missing Somali men use homeland ties in search

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Osman Ahmed
Osman Ahmed, a distant uncle of missing 17-year-old Burhan Hassan of Minneapolis, says he is working his contacts in Somalia to find his nephew.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

The Somali community in Minneapolis is still well-networked into the homeland. Family and business ties make it surprisingly common for people to stay in touch with the social life and economy of this failed state. Somalia hasn't had a working government since 1991. 

Osman Ahmed, whose 17-year-old nephew Burhan Hassan disappeared last November, has been working his contacts back home to try to find his nephew. He knows the FBI is also on the case, but he says law enforcement is mainly concerned with making sure the men don't cause harm in the United States.

Bringing people out of a war zone is another matter, he said.

"Actually, it's very tough [for] law-enforcement agencies, especially the FBI, to go back and get information from Somalia," Ahmed said. "But as Somalis, we know each other, we have a tribe over there, we have friends, we are connected to the Somali government because we supported it. So we are trying in any way we can to get information."

Ahmed reached out to a childhood friend in Somalia. His old pal Abdirashid Mohamed, is now Minister of Commerce in Somalia's new transitional government.  

As the minister of commerce, Mohamed said he doesn't have any power to send the men home.

"But as a minister, I'm an influential person and I can bring the issue on the table of the council of ministers," he told MPR in a phone interview from Mogadishu.

The commerce minister admits he's not just motivated to help his old friend. He's got strong political reasons to join the search. The group the young men have allegedly joined, Al-Shabaab, is the government's main enemy.

"We will appeal to the international community that they will not take any action against them."

For months, the FBI has been investigating how nearly a dozen men from the Twin Cities might have been recruited to join a terrorist group fighting overseas. Authorities think at least one Minneapolis man died in a suicide bombing in Somalia, and the disappearances have triggered a Congressional hearing and at least two grand jury investigations.

Mohamed, the commerce minister, said his government has had no direct contact with the missing men, but is trying to reach them through appeals on the radio.

"We cannot get to them directly, but through the media," he said. "We would like to give them forgiveness. And if they join in the peace process, we will assist them and we will appeal to the international community that they will not take any action against them."

The transitional government is advertising immunity if these men return to their home countries. Young Somalis have reportedly gone missing from Britain as well.

But immunity is a big promise, considering it's a major violation of U.S. law to join and fight with a terrorist group or to fight against an ally of the U.S., such as Ethiopia. Somali-Americans in their teens and 20s have told MPR that they believe some of the missing men sought to defend their homeland from Ethiopian troops, which invaded Somalia in 2006 but have since left.

The Somali commerce minister said he's reached out to staff at the American embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, to ease the way for these missing men to return home.

The State Department and the FBI declined to say whether the U.S. government would grant immunity to the missing men in exchange for valuable testimony as part of an ongoing grand jury investigation in Minneapolis.

"Without knowing the totality of the circumstances, we wouldn't be able to say one way or the other," said FBI spokesman E.K. Wilson in Minneapolis.

Wilson said the FBI would encourage the young men to find the nearest friendly diplomatic agency and request to return to the U.S. "if they find that have been tasked to do things that they do not want to do, have had second thoughts, or feel that they are prohibited from leaving voluntarily."

Wilson wouldn't say whether the FBI is tracing the men's whereabouts, but it wouldn't be surprising if the agency was at least indirectly involved in efforts to find the young Americans. Part of the investigation is focusing what happened to the men and why, so law enforcement authorities would naturally be interested in locating the missing.

Fighting and lawlessness have made Somalia all but a no-go zone for many U.S. agencies. However, the FBI has operated on the ground there as recently as last fall. Agents were sent to northern Somalia following a series of coordinated suicide attacks in late October to assist with a post-blast investigation. 

"We have very strong assurances that they will do their best and that they will bring them home."

FBI officials think one of the suicide bombers was 27-year-old Shirwa Ahmed, a naturalized U.S. citizen who authorities believe was radicalized while living in Minneapolis.

The FBI also has staff and agents working out of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi. The agency has no jurisdiction in Kenya, but the FBI periodically partners with such host countries and other U.S. agencies, such as the CIA, as it chases leads related to crimes or terrorism, Wilson said.

Another uncle of 17-year-old Burhan Hassan is constantly calling up his old friends about the fate of the missing men. Abdirizak Bihi said these friends from his homeland have told him that the missing men are being held captive in the southern part of Somalia that Al-Shabaab controls. He believes an unknown recruiter in Minnesota lured his nephew to Somalia under a false pretext.

"Someone here -- some people, some group, someone -- has been painting a perfect picture of Somalia," Bihi said. "That is being confirmed by some of the conversations we've been having with people on the ground in Somalia."

Bihi said his friends have told him that the young Americans "are being watched, they are heavily guarded, and heavily trained -- mentally and physically." He declined to explain how they were gathering such information, saying he didn't want to jeopardize the ongoing investigation.

But despite his frequent inquiries, Bihi said he is not trying to interfere with the official investigation by the FBI.

"We have very strong assurances that they will do their best and use all their resources and abilities to find these young American kids who have been recruited and brainwashed, and [that] they will bring them home," Bihi said.

There remain unconfirmed rumors that some of the missing men have returned to the U.S. But it's obvious to Bihi that his nephew and many others are still in Africa. He said the young men have made phone calls to their families right before press conferences to address their disappearances. 

While relatives like Bihi are dialing Somalia for answers, it seems that the young men are calling Minnesota -- equally interested in following the story of their disappearances.