Somali activist tried to stop missing boys from traveling

Somali community activist Abia Ali attends a rally against youth violence on the steps of Minneapolis City Hall.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

People who know Abia Ali say she is a voice of conscience in her community.

At a rally last week against Minneapolis street violence, she held a bullhorn on the steps of City Hall, urging her fellow Somalis to help police solve a fatal shooting that took place in front of a popular community center.

Abia Ali, in back, smiles over the antics of a group of boys who are practicing a skit at a ceremony honoring high school graduates. The party was hosted by the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque, where many of the missing boys frequented.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

A sturdy woman wearing a blue hijab that drapes over her head and body, Ali used her faith to make the case for putting the killer behind bars.

"If you get away with this -- in front of Allah, you will not get away," Ali said to the crowd. "Come forward, and please tell what you saw right there."

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The mother of three considers herself a community activist and humanitarian. She works for Hennepin County's economic assistance department, helps sick kids from Somalia find medical treatment in foreign hospitals, and runs a girls' program at the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque in Minneapolis.

On a recent evening at the mosque, where several dozen graduating high school seniors are being honored, everyone seems to know the woman they call Sister Abia. Last year, the Minneapolis police department awarded her for her work with young people.

"I'll be the last person on earth encouraging violence."

But lately, she has felt the spotlight of a federal investigation. The FBI is looking into whether the young men were recruited to fight with an Islamic militia that the U.S government considers a terrorist group. The disappearances have also triggered secret grand jury proceedings.

Ali has heard that FBI agents, working on what she says are false leads, have been asking about her in connection to the case. Agents have been showing Ali's photograph while conducting interviews as part of their probe, according to some of the young people who attend Abubakar.

Ali said she's even heard talk in her community that she was the one who sent the boys to fight in their homeland, a country where anarchy and violence are the rule. She denies the accusation.

"It's very sad," she said, pausing to dab away tears with the hem of her skirt. "It's hurting me so much. I'll be the last person on earth encouraging violence. I'm against violence."

The truth, Ali said, is that she tried to prevent the boys' trips to Somalia, even before the disappearances began to garner headlines.

Muradin Mohamed, 24, and 12-year-olds Hanad Abdi and Walid Mohamud listen at the back of the reception room to speeches at a mosque's ceremony honoring this year's high school graduates.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Ali said she crossed paths with the two teenage boys, Mohamed Hassan and Mustafa Salat, early last year while she was working part time as a tax preparer at a Minneapolis travel agency.

Ali recognized the boys from the mosque. At the time, she had heard rumblings in the community that a handful of boys from the mosque had gone to their families' East African homeland to fight the Ethiopian invasion.

When she saw the two boys at the travel agency, something clicked in her mind.

"You know how you just add one plus one? Some of the boys who left before, they knew each other, [so] maybe they were communicating," she said. "What came to my mind was, 'Oh my God, here we go again. These guys also want to leave.'"

After the two boys left the travel agency, she said she confronted the travel agent and told him not to sell the boys plane tickets to Africa. She said she also made copies of the Somali passports that the boys provided and gave them to the mosque's director.

Ali said her main concern was alerting the boys' parents.

"That's our culture, traditionally, in Somalia: If any adult sees you doing something wrong, that adult will act as your parent and will try to stop to inform your parent," Ali said.

The mosque's director, Omar Hurre, confirmed that he notified the parents about their sons' travel plans. The parents didn't believe it, he said, until he showed them the copies of the passports.

Abia Ali shows off a sheet cake for a graduation party at the mosque. Ali says everyone is grieving over one would-be graduate, Burhan Hassan, who was a senior at Roosevelt High School when he left for Somalia. His family reported that he was killed by a gunshot in early June.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Ali assumes the parents reprimanded the boys, but months later, they made it to Somalia somehow. Family members say the two friends, Mohamed Hassan and Mustafa Salat, disappeared last August.

Hurre said he had not previously gone public with the mosque's role in trying to block the trips, because he wanted to respect the families' privacy.

It's still unclear how Mohamed and Mustafa, who were just 17 when they left Minnesota, were allowed to travel to Somalia without their parents' permission. But some suspect the boys' passports were fake, and may have shown false birthdates that would make them appear older.

The FBI declined to comment on this matter, or about Abia Ali's story, citing the ongoing investigation.

The two boys' families have been reluctant to talk. At their Minneapolis apartment several weeks ago, Mohamed Hassan's mother and sister confirmed that the FBI has questioned the family. But Mohamed's mother said she doesn't believe her son is fighting in her homeland, saying, "I know my son."

Mustafa Salat's relatives could not be reached for comment Monday. But a close uncle has previously confirmed that the family thinks the boy, who loved wrestling and video games, is in Somalia, possibly to fight.

At the Abubakar mosque's graduation party, Abia Ali checks on two large sheet cakes that read, in blue frosting, "Congratulations, Class of 2009."

The young revelers are festive, as they practice skits or toss a football. But you can feel the absence of the missing, especially Burhan Hassan, a quiet and respectful 17-year-old who left for Somalia last fall with three friends.

Burhan should have been with his peers, celebrating his graduation. But he was recently killed in the gunfire of his homeland, according to family members.

Abia Ali said she wishes she could have done more to keep kids like him safe.

"I tried my best at that time, I tried to stop it right there," she said. "But what can we say? When things happen, you have no control."