Young men escape bloodshed in Somalia, but find violence in Minnesota

Vigil for three men killed at Seward Market
Endale Kebede of Columbia Heights lit a candle during a vigil in Minneapolis Thursday, Jan. 7, 2010. Hundreds of people gathered at Seward Market and Halal Meats on E. Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis to remember the three men killed at the market Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010.
MPR photo/Jeffrey Thompson

On a recent afternoon, a group of mourners for three East-African men shot to death at a Minneapolis market shoveled heaps of dirt onto caskets.

At the gravesite, men chanted in Arabic: "There is no God but Allah."

This is how Somalis bury their dead in Mogadishu, one of the most violent places in the world. But the cemetery is in a suburb of Minneapolis, long a haven for East Africans fleeing their war-torn homelands.

That painful irony wasn't lost on members of Minnesota's Somali-American community, who are mourning the deaths of two of their young men, and an Ethiopian, all shot to death at a Minneapolis corner store earlier this month.

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Authorities have charged two teenage Somali boys in the fatal shootings of Anwar Mohammed, Mohamed Warfa, and Osman Elmi.

For Somali-Americans, the triple homicide was a painful reminder of the difficult transition for young people in their community. They've escaped the civil war in their homeland, but their journey in the United States has been fraught with new dangers.

At least 11 young men of Somali descent have been killed in the Twin Cities since December 2007. Minneapolis police say Somali gang activity is on the rise. The FBI says about 20 men left for Somalia to join a gang of another kind -- al-Shabaab, a group the U.S. government considers a terrorist group with ties to al-Qaida.

"I don't know what's going on with the community," said Rahma Warfa, who lost her brother and cousin. "It's sad that we left a civil war to look for a peaceful country, and then we come to a peaceful country, and we still kill ourselves." Prosecutors say two 17-year-olds killed the three men during a botched robbery. It's not clear if either teen was involved with gangs, but the shootings are part of a grim cycle of violence within the Somali-American community.

It's also easy to find success stories among Somali refugees. More Somalis live in this state than anywhere else in the country. Many immigrants have set up shops and restaurants. They've rebuilt their careers in health care and public policy. Their children are graduating from college.

But among those newcomers are some disaffected young men who are causing the most harm to their own people.

Funeral for three men shot in Minneapolis
A casket is wheeled out of the Burnsville Mosque after a funeral Friday, January 8, 2010 for the three East-African men who were killed in Minneapolis.
MPR photo/Tim Post

Murshid Barud, a first cousin of two of the victims in the Seward Market shootings, said wasn't surprised that the suspects were so young. Many Somali-American boys are growing up poor and fatherless in the inner-city, Murshid Barud said, and they're turning to the streets for their role models.

"All these things combined, they've become a lot more dangerous than anyone ever expected them to be," said Barud.

Most of the struggling young men are in their teens or 20s. They were essentially born into a civil war. They've heard the stories from their parents of Somalia's beautiful beaches. But in their lifetime, they've only known their homeland as a failed state.


Abdulkadir Sharif settled into a booth at a restaurant in Karmel Plaza in Minneapolis where a lot of young Somalis hang out. The lanky 31-year-old looks like he's been swallowed by his puffy hooded jacket.

He joked that if he were still in Somalia, he would have grown up to become a warlord. But as a young refugee navigating Minneapolis, he says he sold drugs and helped create one the first Somali gangs in the Twin Cities.

Sharif is a civil-war kid. He came to the U.S. in the mid-'90s when he was 17, illiterate in both English and Somali. His parents were still in Africa, so Sharif's only guardian was an older sister. He drank, smoked pot, and dropped out of school.

Abdulkadir Sharif, 31, shows off a scar he received after an operation for stab wound inflicted by a rival gang member in 2007. The stabbing transformed Sharif's life, and led him to his life as a devout Muslim.
MPR photo/Laura Yuen

A scar on Sharif's neck reminds him why he quit running the streets. In 2007, a man from a rival gang stabbed him in the throat. The knife wound permanently damaged Sharif's vocal chords.

While Sharif was laid up in the hospital, an imam who prayed with him took Sharif under his wing. Sharif takes pride in his job at the mosque, where he works as part youth counselor, part bouncer.

"I"m trying to change a life. I'm trying to save another life," Sharif said.

While Sharif has become a symbol of personal redemption in the community, he knows his future is limited.

Sharif is a convicted felon who has served time in prison for stealing a car, so he's eligible for deportation. But the U.S. government rarely sends criminals back to Somalia because the country has no functioning government. So young offenders like Sharif who come here legally lose their immigration status and are in limbo. It makes it difficult to find work.

"I'm trying to get my papers straight. I need to get a green card. I need to get a work permit," Sharif said.

Sharif says he's steered many young men off the streets, and that he's paid for his crimes many times over.

"Everybody can make mistake, everybody can do wrong. Everybody can change, everybody can get better," Sharif said.

Sharif says a lot of his old friends with lengthy rap sheets are living dead-end lives.

Abdulkadir Sharif
Abdulkadir Sharif, 31, prays at the Minnesota Da'Wah Institute in St. Paul December 23, 2009.
MPR photo/Jeffrey Thompson


At outreach meetings with Somali residents, it's Officer Jeanine Brudenell's job to listen. Brudenell has the peaceful posture of a yoga instructor, which is her side job.

Her full-time job is the Somali community liaison. It's a unique position that Minneapolis police created in response to the escalating violence.

Brudenell is also the department's resident expert on Somali gangs.

Brudenell says there are just seven documented Somali gangs in the area, with names like Somali Mafia and the Somali Outlaws. They make up just a small fraction of known gangs in Minnesota. And their actions have mostly been contained.

"Overall, if you look at the majority of crime that occurs, it's Somali on Somali," Brudenell said.

Related: Civil War Kids:Young Somalis in Minnesota

She says Somali gang members have been successful in intimidating older Somalis because they know they have the upper hand. She says immigrant merchants may be less likely to report robberies or coercion to police.

"They may not speak English, they may not understand the criminal justice system or have a fear of government and law enforcement they've brought with them," Brudenell said.

Minneapolis Somali gangs emerged in the late '90s. The Hot Boyz, one of the first, began as a singing group. Brudenell said they built a reputation in the community, and then committed crimes to back it up -- almost as if they bought into their own hype.

Over time, the gangs grew more emboldened. And now, the second generation of Somali gangs has become more violent than ever.

Brudenell says Somali gangs are more fluid than traditional gangs. They have no hierarchy or formal recruitment. Many members don't even consider themselves a gang. They think of themselves as cliques or organizations.

To Brudenell, there is no doubt that these groups are gangs.

"You can say there are lot of 'cliques.' The Girl Scouts. The Boy Scouts. But when you have a group of people together and they choose to commit crimes, that's when they become a gang," Brudenell said.


At the recent semi-finals for a young men's basketball tournament at the Midtown Y.W.C.A in Minneapolis, a crowd of spectators filled the metal bleachers.

Teams that go by the names "Somali Tigers" or simply "Minneapolis" were trying to advance to the finals. When a ref calls a foul, some of the players lose their tempers.

Abdulahi Farah
Abdulahi Farah, right, talks with young men during a basketball tournament at the Midtown Y.W.C.A. in Minneapolis January 2, 2010. Farah, who volunteers at the Somali Youth Network Council, says basketball helps keeps at-risk youth off the streets.
MPR photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Youth worker Abdulahi Farah in his black leather jacket watched from the sidelines. Farah is a volunteer who's trying to keep some of these young men out of trouble.

"Instead of talking about, 'I'm going to shoot this guy or beat up this guy,' they say, 'Let's take it to the court,'" Farah said.

Over the summer, Farah's group, the Somali Youth Network Council, hired young men from the neighborhood to talk one-on-one with at-risk youth. At the time, there was a turf war between some of the city's Somali neighborhoods.

Farah said the feuds often began with what he calls a beef. But they could escalate over Facebook and text messages into a war with guns and deadly consequences.

"These beefs may start with two guys, a basic confrontation, and all of a sudden, people hear about it. And then there's pressure for the guys to do something," Farah said.

The rash of murders started about two years ago. Seven Somali-American men were killed in less than a year, and gang violence began to claim lives of people with no gang ties at all.

In September 2008, an Augsburg College student who was working as a youth mentor was shot to death. Police believe the gunman was a 16-year-old boy who was upset because the mentor told him he couldn't play basketball. Many of the homicides were acts of retribution for previous shootings and most remain unsolved.

Farah has seen kids go down the wrong path. He said boys who begin to pull away from sports or other activities should be a warning sign to parents.

"At age 12, they're active. At 13, 14, this is when they find new friends. Around 15, 16, they should be finding their hobbies," Farah said. "But when they hit 18, they either continue their hobby and take that positive direction, or they lose the hobby quick. And that's when the alarm should be going off."


The struggles of Minnesota's Somali community got the FBI's attention when a militant Islamic group in Somali began successfully recruiting young men in the Twin Cities three years ago.

Basketball tournament at Midtown Y.W.C.A.
Crowds of young men react to a play during a basketball tournament at the Midtown Y.W.C.A. in Minneapolis January 2, 2010.
MPR photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Al-Shabaab is fighting to overthrow the Somali government and the group has carried out suicide bombings and mortar attacks in the name of Islam. Their name means "the youth" in Arabic, and the U.S. government considers al-Shabaab a terrorist group with ties to al-Qaida..

According to court documents, the recruitment from the United States started in 2007 when young men from the Twin Cities started to hold secret meetings to discuss the Ethiopian military occupation of their homeland. The U.S.-backed invasion drew patriotic outrage from Somalis around the world.

Eventually, up to 20 Twin Cities men, some brimming with testosterone and religious fervor, allegedly enlisted with al-Shabaab.

Ralph Boelter, special agent in charge of the Minneapolis division of the FBI, said his agency needs to win the trust of young Somali-Americans to fight domestic radicalization.

The FBI has taken the unusual step of meeting face to face with young people. They've told Boelter about what it's like to live in poverty, or to face discrimination from police, or to feel alienated from their own parents.

"These are factors that create fertile ground for dissatisfaction, frustration," Boelter said. "And I think those feelings, those emotions, feed one's vulnerability of being influenced to do something that perhaps you or I would not do."

No one is suggesting that Minneapolis gangs are a pipeline to al-Shabaab. The reasons why a young man would enlist in either a gang or a terrorist group are complex. But in many cases, the root of their decisions is similar. The most disaffected young men are trying to connect with something.

Ex-gang member Abdulkadir Sharif says when young criminals give up guns for their faith, they're vulnerable to other influences.

Sharif said his imam read him the Quran and taught him that Islam is peaceful. The problem, he says, is when young men fresh off the streets get mixed up about the religion - and they leave no room for questioning.

Related: Civil War Kids:Young Somalis in Minnesota

Sharif gave the example of a friend who recently got out of prison started to sympathize with al-Shabaab. He said the friend even invited Sharif to join what he called the "jihad" in Somalia.

"He said, I'm going back home, and I'm going jihad. Are you willing to come?'" Sharif said.

Sharif said he told his friend that he'd given up violence, and that the insurgency in Somalia was not a jihad worth fighting. The friend dropped the subject.

A few days later, authorities believe the man was part of a cross-country road trip to the Mexico border. At least two other men in the car left the country, and friends believe they escaped to Africa.

The FBI has accused the two men with encouraging some of the earlier travelers from Minnesota to fight with al-Shabaab.

Sharif's first cousin, Zakaria Maruf, was one of the stubborn civil war kids. Maruf was lured by both gangs and al-Shabaab. He is believed to have died in his homeland.


Zuhur Ahmed remembers Maruf as magnetic figure in every social circle he passed through. She's the 24-year-old host of "Somali Community Link," a Twin Cities radio show that airs on KFAI.

Zuhur Ahmed, radio host of "Somali Community Link"
Zuhur Ahmed, radio host of "Somali Community Link" on KFAI, works the controls during a show on the missing Somali-American men. Her guests include Taneeza Islam from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, writer Ahmed Yusuf, and Special Agent in Charge Ralph Boelter of the Minneapolis FBI office.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"He was the well-known one. He was the one girls liked. He was the loud one, the one that people listened to," Ahmed said.

Ahmed says her passion as a radio host has always been about the lives of Somalis in Minnesota. She says she used to get a lot of heat from older listeners for devoting so much air time to the challenges of her generation.

"I see the youth, I see their struggles, I see their problems. My show was not popular at all because I was not covering politics or what was going on back home. I was covering young men that were killing each other in Cedar-Riverside," Ahmed said.

A couple years ago, she invited Zakaria Maruf to be a guest on her show on that very topic.

Maruf, like his cousin Abdulkadir Sharif, was a former gang member who turned religious several years ago. Friends said he struggled because of his criminal history but eventually found work as a Wal-Mart stock boy.

On a recent evening, Ahmed went back to listen to a recording of the old show. Maruf's comments reveal a young man's disillusionment with life in his adopted country.

In the interview, Maruf told her why he decided to leave the Hot Boyz.

"One day I was at Cedar, here in MN, with a bunch of other youth. An older Somali man came to us, He came by and he told us, 'Are you always going to be living this life?' We laughed at the old man. But when I rethought about what he said, it left a mark," Maruf said in the broadcast.

Ahmed had no idea that when Maruf appeared on the radio show in October 2007, he was allegedly plotting with other young men to join al-Shabaab. A few months later, he left for Somalia.

Friends heard Maruf was killed last summer in the fighting. Five other al-Shabaab recruits from Minnesota are also believed dead, including one who became a suicide bomber.

Zakaria Maruf
Zakaria Maruf was one of the first Minnesota men to have left for Somalia for al-Shabaab.
Courtesy of the Hennepin County Sheriff's office

Zuhur Ahmed says it's eerie listening to Zakaria Maruf's voice.

"God knows how I feel about it. It's scary now to know that he died and joined this crazy group that is blowing themselves up."

On the show, Ahmed asked Maruf why the youth are joining street gangs. Maruf placed most of the blame on his parents' generation and community leaders. He refers to a coffee shop on Riverside Avenue, where Somali cab drivers and elders get into heated discussions about the affairs of the homeland.

"The community is busy with themselves. The problem is, the fathers go to Starbucks. They're chatty. They're talking about, 'We are Clan A, we are Clan B.' The reason why we're here and why we fled Somalia is because Clan A and B. I am not Clan A or B. Why can't they be busy with us and talk with us, help us?," Maruf said in the broadcast.

Maruf said the parents have become helpless. They don't speak the language. They don't know what's going on with their kids.

When she listens to Maruf, Zuhur Ahmed says she hears a sense of disappointment that she didn't notice at the time of the interview. Ahmed believes there's a connective thread between the reasons why a young man might join a gang, and why he might enlist with a terrorist group.

"When you feel like you're neglected by your own parents, your own and people, by your own community leaders, by your own fathers, you're very vulnerable to anything," Ahmed said. "I wouldn't even think they would need drugs or anything to lead them to join al-Shabaab or join gangs, because at least they have a group that's calling for them. At least they have a sense of belonging. At least they have a place where they are the center of attention."