Rep. Ellison says U.S. trying to ensure safe return of missing Somalis

Keith Ellison
Keith Ellison, Democrat, is running for a second term in Minnesota's 5th Congressional District.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison said the U.S. government is trying to ensure the safe return of some of the young Somali-American men believed to be fighting with a terrorist group in their homeland.

Ellison said he has been included in classified briefings about efforts to bring the missing men back to the Twin Cities.

At least four Somali-American men from Minnesota who left to fight in the Horn of Africa have died there in recent months.

One of youngest, a skinny teenager from Minneapolis named Burhan Hassan, was trying to leave the fighting and make his way to the U.S. embassy in neighboring Kenya, according to family members. They believe a fellow member of the extremist group Al-Shabaab shot Hassan to death when the group learned of his plans to escape.

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Congressman Keith Ellison thinks the U.S. should try to retrieve the Minnesotan men who may have been misled into joining Al-Shabaab and want out.

"We can't have a knee-jerk emotional reaction," Ellison said. "We've got to have an intelligent reaction. If a young person says, 'I have been lied to. I don't like these people. I want to get away from them,' we should help them do that, as long as we know that does not create a public safety issue for Minnesotans and Americans."

Ellison wouldn't offer more details of the plans, saying the discussions were classified. But he said the efforts involve private non-governmental organizations as well as government entities. A State Department official did not respond to requests for interviews.

Ellison, whose district includes the largest concentration of Somali-Americans in the country, said the U.S. government has a vested interest in bringing the men back to safety. The FBI is investigating how and why about 20 men left the Twin Cities to join the chaos and bloodshed of a homeland they barely knew.

Burhan Hassan
Burhan Hassan, a young Somali man from Minneapolis, was reportedly killed in Mogadishu last week. His family wants the body returned to Minnesota.
Courtesy Roosevelt High School

Ellison said the U.S. should send a message to the young fighters.

"If you've learned the truth about these exploitative organizations like Shabaab, who are so dangerous, then abandon them and then help tell the truth about what these groups are really all about," Ellison said.

The Minneapolis office of the FBI has encouraged any of the Minnesota fighters who have had second thoughts to find their way to "the nearest friendly diplomatic agency."

"If these men did come to a point where they wanted to return home, that they were disenchanted with the situation over there, tired of the fighting and wanting to come home, we'd certainly like to get the word out that they should do that," said FBI spokesman E.K. Wilson.

But Wilson also added that the FBI remains focused on the investigation, "and that focus has not changed at all."

Asking a fighter to simply walk away from Al-Shabaab because he had a change of heart is a tall order. Families have heard that the men are being closely guarded.

Mogadishu has been under siege in recent weeks as groups like Al-Shabaab vie for power. The U.S. has no diplomatic presence in Somalia; however the FBI has staff and agents in neighboring countries that are assisting in the investigation.

Still, at least two men with Minnesota ties were able to escape Al-Shabaab, back in December 2007.

Court records released this week say Abdifatah Isse left for Somalia in hopes of fighting against the Ethiopian troops who invaded the country. According to the documents, only after Isse arrived in Somalia, he realized he joined a movement connected to Al-Shabaab. At the time, the U.S. had yet to declare Al-Shabaab as a terrorist group. Isse and another Minnesota man were able to flee Al-Shabaab soon after arriving.

A friend identified the other man as 26-year-old Salah Ahmed of New Brighton. The friend said Ahmed told the other Minnesota fighters that he needed to seek treatment for his allergies. Then Ahmed and Isse escaped to Kismayo, and eventually returned to the United States.

Now, the two men are back in Minnesota -- behind bars. Authorities this week released indictments charging each of them with providing material support to terrorism and conspiring to kill people abroad. At least one of the men, Isse, is cooperating with authorities. A trial for Ahmed is scheduled for October.

But bringing the remaining recruits back to the U.S. isn't without risk. John Radsan, a former assistant general counsel for the CIA, said the U.S. government is taking such a heightened interest in the case of the Somali-American fighters because of broader concerns on global terror.

"These people are trained, perhaps over there. They become radicalized over there," Radsan said. "They are engaged in combat, and if those people can be put on that cycle, it's only another step before they might come back here to do bad things in the Twin Cities."

Counterterrorism officials have said they have no evidence that the young men were plotting attacks on the U.S.

Congressman Ellison agrees that the U.S. government's first responsibility is to protect its residents. But he also thinks if the recruits pose no threat to national security, they should be allowed to re-integrate into the American culture they left behind.

(Reporters Elizabeth Stawicki and Sasha Aslanian contributed to this report.)