Alleged Somali sex ring signals youth crisis, activists say

Somali-American community members say an investigation into an alleged prostitution ring in Minnesota and Tennessee is yet another wake-up call about disaffected youth in their community.

Details came to light this month after investigators asked a Ramsey County judge for permission to search the cell phone records of a 15-year-old girl. Authorities believe the girl was lured into a large prostitution ring and controlled by Somali gangs.

Abdirizak Bihi, a Minneapolis community activist, said he has counseled about 20 young Somali-American women caught up in human trafficking through his work with the group Civil Society. Although he did not know specifics about the investigation, he said the victims he's seen are from ages 15 to 23, and most grew up in the United States.

Stuck in a cultural rift, many of the young women rebelled against their strict Somali parents or elders by running away, making them easy targets, Bihi said. Some of the girls were lured by promises of a better life, and moved into houses shared with other girls and their victimizers.

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"And many men come to the home providing small things such as paying for their cell phones, or stuff they want to buy, and taking advantage sexually of those young girls."

Bihi said the alleged prostitution ring points to a broader youth malaise in his community.

"We have a huge number of boys and girls who are displaced, and alienated from the community," Bihi said. "Those people are vulnerable to recruitment - either of terror, gang violence, or prostitution and human trafficking."

Abdirizak Bihi
Abdirizak Bihi, an uncle to 17-year-old Burhan Hassan, thinks his nephew and others may have been motivated by nationalistic reasons to fight in Somalia. But Bihi also is convinced a handful or religious leaders in the Twin Cities introduced the young men to extremist Islamic ideology.
MPR Photo/Yuen

Bihi is also the uncle of one of several young Twin Cities men believed dead after allegedly leaving for Somalia to fight with a terrorist group in their homeland.

The investigation into the alleged prostitution ring involves multiple agencies, including St. Paul police, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the FBI. KSTP-TV broke the story earlier this week and reported on a search warrant issued in the case. That document has been since sealed, and KSTP shared a copy with MPR News.

The affidavit paints a troubling picture of the life of the 15-year-old victim, who authorities say frequently ran away from home and was allegedly involved with assaults, a robbery, and a car theft.

This summer, investigators brought the girl to Nashville, where she testified in federal court as part of the investigation. They also seized her cell phone. She is now in custody of Hennepin County, according to the affidavit.

Van Vincent, an assistant U.S. attorney in Nashville, would not confirm or deny the investigation.

Ann Quinn, the BCA agent who requested the search warrant, wrote in the affidavit that prostitution victims are often beaten and threatened.

"Persons who promote juveniles into prostitution will often become the 'family' of the victim which leads the victim into total isolation, distrust of their own family, Law Enforcement and total involvement in the prostitution culture," she wrote.

Rumors about juvenile sex trafficking have been circulating in the Twin Cities Somali community for the past year, but the details were always hard to pin down, said Abia Ali, who runs a girls' program at the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque in Minneapolis.

"You'd hear about it, but not who's doing it," Ali said.

She recalls being tipped off by a man who told her he was approached by another man in a parking lot of a Minneapolis Somali mall who was soliciting prostitutes. "He said, 'Give me $30, and I'll bring you a girl," recalled Ali, who said she then advised her students to be on high alert.

Ali said she plans to discuss the issue with some of her youth leaders this weekend.

"This is a wake-up call to educate the whole community," she said. "We can't be in denial. We should take care of our girls."

Bihi, the community activist who works with human-trafficking victims, said he's learned that some of the victims are shuttled across state lines. He's heard of similar activity as far away as Boston, Seattle, and Columbus, Ohio.

Still, many Somali-Americans say they're shocked to learn of the alleged sex ring, especially because prostitution is considered taboo. Traditional Somali culture expects girls to be protected.

"The root of the problem is that we are not addressing the real issues of the community, and that tends to make the problem worse," Bihi said.