One of the two Somali-American men from Minnesota reportedly killed over the weekend in Mogadishu apparently played a role in recruiting others to fight in his homeland.
Zakaria Maruf, 30, was part of the first wave of more than a dozen men who left the Twin Cities to fight in Somalia's civil war. Maruf left for the Horn of Africa in early 2008, long before the disappearances began to garner headlines.
Maruf, a former Wal-Mart employee and reformed gang member, likely persuaded others to join him in a holy war, through phone calls and e-mails to Minnesota.
Late last year, Maruf called an old acquaintance in Minneapolis who was in his senior year of high school. The 18-year-old student knew the older Maruf through basketball and from worshipping at a couple of Minneapolis mosques.
According to the young man's lawyer, Stephen Smith, Maruf invited the teenager to join the fighting in Somalia.
"At one point, he made the statement that 'We are fighting the enemy of Allah,'" said Smith.
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Smith said his client -- whom he won't name, citing the ongoing investigation -- declined Maruf's offer.
"He made it quite clear that he had no interest in leaving this country and getting involved in this conflict," said Smith.
But the young man was also apprehensive of rejecting the invitation, because Maruf was seen as a sort of elder leader in their social circles.
"He was someone who people looked up to, in the sense that he was kind of cool. He sort of exuded his own independence," said Smith. "So when [my client] is asked this question in such a direct fashion, it's like talking to an older sibling you might look up to. There's no question he wasn't going to participate in it, but how do you say it?"
Smith's client testified about the phone call before a federal grand jury in April. He also received two e-mails from Maruf.
Authorities are investigating how and why the men traveled to Somalia to fight along with a terrorist group with ties to al-Qaida.
Smith has advised about 15 Somali individuals who have been questioned. He says it's clear that investigators think Maruf was a central figure in the case, but he also thinks Maruf was not the only recruiter involved.
Friends say Maruf was killed over the weekend in Mogadishu, along with 20-year-old Jamal Bana. Few details are known about their deaths, and the FBI says it can't confirm them.
While some younger men in Minnesota looked up to Maruf, others perceived him as troubled and argumentative. He had a lengthy rap sheet, and at one point ran with a Somali street gang.
Ruqia Mohamed, a student at the University of Minnesota, told MPR News in April that Maruf argued with leaders at the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque in Minneapolis, and even squabbled with her over matters like women's rights.
"I think he had lot of anger. I didn't understand half his anger he had," said Mohamed. "Maybe things he went through made him the person he was at the time."
One of Maruf's relatives, a former gang member himself, said Maruf broke away from a gang known as the Hot Boyz in 2000. Maruf even tried to persuade his relative to leave the violence of the streets. He also visited high schools and used his own life story to encourage others to avoid trouble.
Friends say Maruf stocked shelves at Wal-Mart after failed attempts to find other work. But after leaving for Somalia, Maruf apparently reached a level of respect and authority that eluded him in the United States.
Friends heard he was even in charge of a little town in Somalia while fighting with the insurgency. In January, he was interviewed by a Somali radio station in Kismayo.
In the interview, Maruf seemed concerned about setting the record straight about the kind of men who were leaving Minnesota to fight. He said descriptions of the young fighters as jobless or unlearned were lies.
"All of them were in school, or working or going to the university -- our oldest and our youngest. We were educated people who were helping others in our country," Maruf said in the interview.
And while his other peers who were fighting in the conflict said they would never harm innocent people by way of a suicide bombing, Maruf was more ambivalent, according to one friend who remained in touch with the young men. She did not want to be identified, citing the ongoing investigation.
The friend said Maruf was the only fighter from Minnesota who vocally supported the actions of Shirwa Ahmed, a Minneapolis man who carried out a suicide bombing in Somalia last fall. Maruf even said that if it were his fate to carry out a suicide mission, he would.