The FBI is investigating what may have motivated the Somali-American men to take up arms in the chaos of their homeland. A fiery speech given by a visiting Somali opposition leader in Minneapolis may provide some clues.
In late 2007, when the first of about a dozen Somali men from Minnesota began to travel to their homeland to fight in a bloody civil war, a tempest was building in the Twin Cities Somali community. Many Somali-Americans were upset about Ethiopian troops that invaded their homeland.
A Twin Cities group called the United Somali Diaspora organized and videotaped the rally, in November of 2007, at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The main purpose was to raise awareness of the Ethiopian invasion.
But one keynote speaker, a middle-aged man in a cream-colored suit, seemed to cross the line.
Zakariya Abdi, who was bent on pushing the Ethiopians out and taking down Somalia's transitional government, encouraged Somalis in Minnesota to fight.
"Enlist yourselves. Come to see us in Asmara," Abdi said to the crowd. "Let us get to know each other. We will offer training. Then whoever wants to fight for two months, like the Eritreans used to do, can then go back to school."
At the time, Abdi and other members of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia were based in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. In his speech, Abdi also urged recent college grads who had computer expertise to enlist in what he called a "war of technology."
He said: "We need their minds."
Attempts by MPR News to reach Zakaria Abdi, who lives in London, were unsuccessful.
No one in the Somali community in Minnesota has directly linked Abdi's speech with the recruitment of young Somali-American fighters.
Mohamed Hassan, of Minneapolis, doesn't think Abdi's words were the catalyst for their disappearance, but said they capture the sense of nationalism and fears felt by Somali communities across the globe.
"At the time, because of the past history between the two countries, there was paranoia and anxiety that Ethiopia's intentions were to capture Somalia and annex it to make it part of Ethiopia," Hassan said. "People were making the arguments that Somalia would be part of history."
Hassan is with the group Somali Cause, an umbrella organization that, along with United Somali Diaspora and other groups, opposed the Ethiopian invasion. Hassan recalls reading accounts from human rights groups reporting that the Ethiopian soldiers were raping Somali women and looting property.
Hassan said, to bring attention to those crimes, most Somali-American activists held rallies and wrote letters to U.S. officials opposing what they considered an unjust occupation. Hassan said they didn't condone violence.
"What we could do to help was not to inflame or add more guys to the fire, but to educate people about peaceful means of changing systems or policies that they don't agree with -- not to take arms and fight," Hassan said.
Ethiopia withdrew its forces from Somalia earlier this year. Many Somalis in Minnesota were hopeful that the withdrawal, along with a new president in Somalia, would foster peace and stability.
Instead, violence has worsened over recent months with rebel groups and hard-line Islamists trying to overthrow the Somali government. U.S. officials are worried that Somalia will be a haven for international terrorism.
Even Somalis in Minnesota who were sympathetic to the fighting a year ago have now distanced themselves from one of the main resistance groups, Al-Shabaab, which has emerged as the Somali government's top enemy and has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings. The U.S. has declared Al-Shabaab as a terrorist group.
Burhan Hassan, a 17-year-old high school senior from Minneapolis whose family believes he joined the fighting in Somalia last year, was recently killed in a homeland he hardly knew. His uncle, Abdirizak Bihi, finds Zakaria Abdi's speech disturbing, but not compelling enough to motivate his nephew and others to war.
"These kids don't speak Somali," Bihi said. "They don't understand Somali issues."
Bihi still blames a handful of religious leaders in Minnesota for radicalizing the young men with extremist ideology.
"It's not the work that was done by one speech," he said. "It's not the work that was done in a couple days or months. It's the work of years and years and years."
Most of the men who left for Somalia worshipped and studied at a popular Minneapolis mosque, Abubakar As-Saddique. Mosque officials deny they radicalized the young men.
The director of the mosque, Omar Hurre, declined to comment on Zakaria Abdi's speech, citing the mosque's policy of remaining neutral on Somali politics.
Hurre said the mosque had nothing to do with coordinating the event. Though a man who volunteered years ago for Abubakar eventually became one of the leaders of United Somali Diaspora, Hurre said.
Mohamed Wardheere, a member of United Somali Diaspora, said he didn't recall Abdi calling for recruits to fight. Wardere said Abdi's comments might be taken out of context, and that he recalls Abdi appealing to Somalis' patriotism to make the case for helping their homeland, through financial or moral support.
A federal grand jury and the FBI continue to explore what may have influenced the young Somali-Americans to go back to a war zone to fight.
In an interview with a Somali radio station several months ago, one of the Minnesota fighters suggested that he and his friends traveled to Somalia on their own volition. Friends have identified the speaker as 30-year-old Zakaria Maruf, a graduate of Edison High School in Minneapolis.
"Brother, someone who is a grown man with any sense cannot be misled, Maruf said in the interview."The place where we've come from is not a place where you can be coerced."
In the interview, Maruf implies that his participation in the fighting was motivated by religion, not patriotism. Maruf said he and his friends heard the call of Allah, and they accepted it.
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