Mosque leader wants to reconcile with families of missing Somalis

Sheikh Abdirahman Ahmad
Sheikh Abdirahman Ahmad works as a parent liaison for Higher Ground Academy, a St. Paul charter school whose students are mostly Somali-American. He's also the spiritual leader of the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Most days, you can find Sheikh Abdiraman Ahmad walking the halls of Higher Ground Academy. Most of the students who come to this St. Paul charter school are ethnic Somalis, just like Ahmad.

His official title here is parent liaison.

Mosque expansion
A construction worker tends to a window at the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque in Minneapolis. Abubakar is building 10 new classrooms on its second floor for a new private school. The school could open as early as this fall.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

But teachers and staff say he's also a peacemaker and cultural broker. Students see Ahmad, with his embroidered African hat and Nike windbreaker, as a holy man. A man of peace.

But he has gotten the attention of the federal government for other reasons. Ahmad said he learned last November while trying to board a plane to Saudia Arabia that he's on the federal no-fly list. It means he's suspected of being linked to terrorist activities. The mosque's youth coordinator was also denied travel that day.

Ahmad was leading several dozen Muslims from Minnesota to Mecca for their annual pilgrimage. He thinks he was stopped from flying because of an ongoing investigation into the missing men. Many of the young men worshipped at his mosque.

"It is a kind of humiliation when you are going to the Hajj, and you're a leader for the whole community. It was a shock to the community, too," said Ahmad. "I believe I am a good citizen, an American citizen. I worked all my life in the United States in education. I was serving my community."

Individuals can be taken off the watch list if an investigation determines they're not involved with terrorism. For privacy and security reasons, the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center doesn't discuss individual cases and wouldn't confirm whether Ahmad is on the no-fly list.

Omar Hurre
Omar Hurre, the mosque's director, said Abubakar started out renting out small spaces in 1990s. In 2006, Abubakar bought an old Minneapolis roofing warehouse with private donations and turned it into a mosque and gathering place for Somali-Americans. It is the largest mosque in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

About 400,000 individuals are on the broader terrorist watch list, of which the no fly-list is a small subset. Only about 5 percent of those individuals are U.S. citizens or legal residents.

People who feel they are wrongly placed on the watch list can file requests for redress through the Department of Homeland Security. Ahmad said his lawyer has been in touch with the department and is working to get him off the list.

Since arriving in Minnesota from Somalia 13 years ago, Ahmad was known for helping Twin Cities Somalis struggling to adjust. He taught for seven years at Minneapolis Public Schools before coming to Higher Ground. And he was one of the founders of Abubakar As-Saddique, which he said was the first Somali-owned mosque in the Twin Cities.

Today, it's Minnesota's largest mosque. Many Somali-Americans credit religious institutions like Abubakar with filling a void in the lives of refugees. Parents relied on the imams to keep their sons out of trouble, away from gangs and alcohol. They gather there for weddings and youth activities.

On Friday afternoons, Sheikh Abdirhaman Ahmad gives lectures in this converted roofing warehouse, mixing Quranic teachings with a contemporary messages about health and swine flu.

The mosque is growing. With donations from the community, it's adding a private school to the second floor. The controversy over the missing men hasn't prevented several hundred worshippers, like one young woman, from praying on the crimson-red carpet and hearing the message of her imam.

Students at Higher Ground Academy
Students at Mai Huynh's first-grade class line up at the door at Higher Ground Academy, where Abdirahman Ahmad (not pictured) works as a parent liaison.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"I think Sheikh Abdirahman is a good man. He's a good imam," said the woman, who didn't want to give her name. "All of this that's been going on, I'm not sure what it is. But it's not going to stop me from coming here. No matter what anybody says, I'm coming."

But a few parents are keeping their kids away from Abubakar until the investigation is resolved. Mosque leaders say FBI agents have been keeping a close watch on the building from parked cars on the street. So far, Ahmad has not been among the dozens who have been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury.

At least one family, the relatives of 17-year-old Burhan Hassan, has accused Abubakar leaders of indoctrinating the youth with extremist thoughts. Ahmad and other leaders vigorously deny the rumors. Still, some fault Ahmad for not doing enough to reach out to the mothers and fathers of the missing.

Ahmad explains his attorneys advised him not to visit the parents because of the investigation, something he now regrets.

As for those mothers and fathers who have pointed fingers at him, the imam said he understands.

"I think when a parent misses his kid, he gets confusion. He wants to get his child back. And so he tries everything he can," he said.

Not every parent blames Abubakar for their sons' disappearances. In fact, some continue to worship at the mosque, said director Omar Hurre. He said the mosque leaders tried to meet privately with the parents back in November until a team of uncles called off the talks.

But some people think Ahmad and the administration should be held accountable.

MPR News has obtained an exchange of four short e-mails between Ahmad and a man believed to based in Mogadishu. A source who provided the e-mails, all from November 2007, said they show that Ahmad was sympathetic to Islamic extremists in Somalia, and that he sent money to support the families of the fighters. The source didn't want to be identified, citing the ongoing investigation.

In the e-mails, the man asks Ahmad what he should do with the money the imam had sent. Should he distribute it to any orphan, he asks, or give it only to the children of the "shuhadada"? The word, in both Somali and Arabic, means "martyrs." In response, Ahmad wrote that he should give it to anyone who needs help.

Ahmad confirmed the e-mails, but said there's a simple explanation: He said the man he was in touch with is a cousin who runs an orphanage in Mogadishu. Ahmad became emotional when he described sending money to support the facility. "The orphans, they are close relatives to my family. So he said the orphans of the families need help. So I sent $500 to him," said Ahmad. "That's what the emails are about."

Ahmad said the word "shuhadada" at the time referred to anyone killed in Somalia's civil unrest, including those slain by Ethiopian troops who invaded the country in 2006. Many Somalis in the diaspora were outraged at the invasion and supported families of Somalis slain in the conflict. The Ethiopian forces have since withdrawn from the country.

He said he has never supported Al-Shabaab, a violent band of extremists believed to have recruited the young Minnesotans. The group had some support among Somalis because it was taking up arms against the Ethiopians. The U.S. State Department declared the militia a terrorist group in March 2008.

Ahmad said he was as shocked as anyone when he heard that young Somalis from Minnesota were fighting in a country that their parents were so lucky to flee. When the first among them departed in 2007, Ahmad heard he was going to Somalia to get married.

As for the other teenagers and young people who still attend the mosque, Ahmad said, he makes sure to counsel them.

"I tell them, 'You have an opportunity here. Don't go back home. There's a civil war going on. You cannot go back to the trouble that you traveled from. Study here. Go to school. Work," said Ahmad.

He said every week during prayer, he blesses the young men who are no longer there. He prays for their safety, and that they'll come back soon to their families.

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