From MN suburbs, they set out to join ISIS

All three young men were active on social media.
Hamza Ahmed, Hanad Mohallim and Abdullahi Yusuf were all very active in social media.
Illustration by Regina McCombs | MPR News

On May 13, 2013, Hanad Mohallim strutted to the playground across the street from his family's two-story suburban home. Boredom, Mohallim said, compelled him to create a walking, talking video selfie.

"Just another day in the life of a gangsta in the 'hood for me — Apple Valley," he deadpanned. "I decided to make a little quick-ass video showing y'all ... what life is like in the [expletive] projects."

His clips on the video-sharing app Keek were silly, profane and not unusual for an American teen playing to a crowd on social media. Less than a year later, Mohallim was living a life far outside the norm.

On March 9, 2014, the 18-year-old took a plane from Minnesota to Turkey and from there made his way to the fighting in Syria, according to court documents.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Federal authorities say two other young men who once attended Burnsville High School with Mohallim tried to take the same path to Syria in hopes of joining the terrorist group ISIS.

But Abdullahi Yusuf, 18, and Hamza Ahmed, now 20, never caught their flights. Federal agents intercepted them last year at airports and charged them with conspiring to assist a foreign terrorist organization.

Public records, interviews with former classmates and relatives of the three young men, and a review of their musings on Twitter reveal their transformation from drifting suburban teenagers to potential recruits for a horrifically brutal terrorist movement.

Some of their own friends didn't see it coming. Born to immigrant parents from East Africa, the three men embraced basketball and social media. They weren't overtly devout and at times rebelled in the classroom.

Federal authorities believe roughly 15 young people have left Minnesota for Syria to join ISIS over the past year or so. At least five, including Mohallim of Apple Valley, are believed dead.

Hanad Mohallim

Hanad Mohallim
Hanad Mohallim at Burnsville High School and his Twitter profile.
Burnsville High School yearbook

In the summer of 2013, Mohallim was becoming more contemplative, tweeting at one point that he grew up fast because he didn't have a father. The death of a cousin, Mohallim said, was a wake-up call. He also called on young Muslims, including himself, to realize their identity.

A different cousin, Abdihafid Ali, said Mohallim failed a few classes freshman year and struggled to catch up.

"He eventually got out of that slump and decided that it was time to get his life back together," Ali said. "He started pursuing his education again."

Friends say Mohallim floundered academically and bounced from one school to the next, including Burnsville High School, a Minneapolis charter school, and Heritage Academy of Science and Technology in Minneapolis.

Mohallim didn't have a strong grasp of Islam, but he wanted to become righteous. He documented his struggle to change on Twitter. He tweeted about his attempts to avoid cursing, which he thought was sinful. The mall, Mohallim proclaimed, had too many temptations.

At other times, his queries sounded endearing as he tried to transform himself.

"Anyone know how to make a beard grow faster?" Mohallim tweeted on Jan. 25, 2014.

A friend, Hamza Ahmed, encouraged Mohallim to join him at a mosque for Friday prayers. In what would be his final tweet to Mohallim, on March 14, 2014, Ahmed asked if they could meet up at the Al-Farooq center in Bloomington.

Ahmed apparently didn't know that five days earlier, Mohallim had left for Syria.

Hamza Ahmed

Hamza Ahmed
Hamza Ahmed at Burnsville High School, his mugshot after his arrest, and his Twitter account.
Burnsville High School yearbook

Abdirahman Ahmed, a student at Normandale Community College, befriended Hamza Ahmed during their senior year at Burnsville High School. He recalls shooting baskets with Hamza, who relentlessly practiced his shots at the gym.

"He did what every other high schooler at our age would do," Abdirahman Ahmed said. "He was just a normal kid. There's nothing odd about him."

Nonetheless, Hamza Ahmed was passionate, and the two friends had their disagreements. One led to a fistfight in the main school hallway. Abdirahman Ahmed can't recall what led to the fight, but figures he probably started it.

"He actually apologized first," recalled Abdirahman Ahmed, who believes his old friend could have "mopped the floor with me" in the fight. "He was holding back."

Hamza Ahmed continued to get into scuffles. Another fight at the high school near the end of his senior year drew more than 500 student onlookers, according to a Burnsville police report. Ahmed, then 18, and three other students were charged with disorderly conduct. Officers learned that Ahmed was part of two dueling groups that had fought the previous night at a Savage park.

Ahmed walked away from the school brawl with a bruised cheek. That same day, he fired off a blustering tweet. "Babiest hits ive ever took in my life," Ahmed typed.

He and another student were suspended for five days. Ahmed never graduated from the high school.

Like his friend Hanad Mohallim, Hamza Ahmed wrote online posts that laid bare his vulnerabilities.

Ahmed, who claimed ethnic Oromo heritage, spoke achingly of his older brother, who he said had left for the Middle East. In November 2013, Ahmed wrote: "Sometimes the lone wolf life gets to me. I miss my older bro too I wish he was here with me. Last time I saw him was in my dream."

Earlier that summer, Ahmed had become more concerned about the bloodshed in Syria, specifically the atrocities President Bashar al-Assad was committing against his own people. Soon, Ahmed's tweets grew more religious, expressing a passion to "help and fight for the Muslims in Syria."

"Staying here just seems to kill part of me everyday," he wrote on Dec. 24, 2013. "The call of my Dying family keeps ringing in my heart."

He also talked about wanting to become a martyr.

Federal prosecutors say that last November, Ahmed, then 19, acted on his yearning. He took a bus with three other young men from Minneapolis to New York. At John F. Kennedy International Airport, they tried to board planes that would help them get to Syria, according to a criminal complaint. Authorities prevented them from flying out.

Ahmed, a former student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, faces charges of attempting to support a foreign terrorist organization. He remains in custody awaiting trial.

Abdullahi Yusuf

Abdullahi Yusuf
Abdullahi Yusuf at Burnsville High School, his mug shot after his arrest, and his public Facebook profile.
Burnsville High School yearbook

Toweringly tall, Abdullahi Yusuf was one of the "hoopers" who shot baskets all day at the gym of the Al-Farooq mosque in Bloomington. He talked a little trash and could even dunk, said Zak, a friend who requested his last name not be used because of the continuing investigation.

Al Farooq Youth & Family Center
Al Farooq Youth & Family Center in Bloomington, Minn., March 5, 2015.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

After Yusuf transferred to an alternative school in Minneapolis, Zak tutored him in science. Yusuf was bright, Zak recalls, but had struggled in the past because he didn't turn in his homework. Like Hanad Mohallim, Yusuf attended several high schools across the Twin Cities.

But as Yusuf grew into adulthood, he became more serious and religious. On summer nights, he turned down Zak's invitations to go to the movies or play basketball. Yusuf was never harsh in his views, but he reminded Zak to be a good Muslim and a better human being.

"Toward the end of my friendship with him, he was a bit of a loner," Zak said. "You could tell the transition from being a guy who was outgoing to a guy that was saying he was becoming more mature ... acting like a man."

Kamal Hassan, an Edina businessman and a relative of Yusuf's, describes him as an always-smiling, respectful boy.

In school, however, he "portrayed himself as a tough guy — 'Don't mess with me,'" said a former guidance counselor, Deb Alwin.

Alwin, who worked at Nicollet Junior High before she retired, said the boy she recalls was troubled, frequenting the guidance office and principal's office. "Most of it was for disrespectful behavior — not following directions, saying things that were inappropriate, and then being argumentative when especially a woman tried to tell him he needed to behave," she said.

Last May, soon after turning 18, Yusuf tried to board a plane from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Istanbul. But the FBI, tipped off by a passport official's suspicions, was waiting for him.

At the time, ISIS was not yet a household name in America. The ghastly videos of beheadings didn't come until months later.

Last month, Yusuf pleaded guilty to playing a minor role in a conspiracy to help ISIS by trying to enlist in the group. While he awaits sentencing, Yusuf is undergoing counseling at a halfway house as part of a program that could serve as a national model for rehabilitating radicalized individuals.

A familiar narrative

This is not the first time the call of jihad has sounded in the Twin Cities. Starting in 2007, about two dozen young men, most of them from the nation's largest Somali-American community, traveled to their families' East African homeland to join the terror group al-Shabab.

A mix of politics and religion inspired the al-Shabab recruits. Angered by the occupation of Ethiopian troops in Somalia, they radicalized one another. The men raised money for their airfare by fraudulently soliciting donations at local malls and apartments, telling community members that the cash would go toward building a mosque or toward relief efforts in Somalia.

Abdi Mohamud Nur
Abdi Mohamud Nur from his social media page.

The Minnesota ISIS recruits, on the other hand, lacked any ethnic or family connections to Syria, eliminating those factors as possible motives.

And it's unclear how they cobbled together the cash to pay for their trips. Abdullahi Yusuf and another traveler, Abdi Nur of Minneapolis, were unemployed when they each deposited about $1,500 into their checking accounts to pay for their plane tickets, according to court documents. Nur tweeted that he eventually made it to the Syrian city of Raqqa, known as the unofficial ISIS capital, and is on the front lines of the fighting.

Community members suspect a recruiter must have helped arrange and finance the men's travels. The question is who, said Yusuf's relative Kamal Hassan.

"That is the big mystery," said Hassan. "We know [Yusuf] was not working. He was not making money. Somebody gave him that money, and it's not his family. There's an external funding source, and I don't know who they are."

Amir Meshal
This photo taken by a U.S. consular officer shows Amir Meshal filling out a U.S. passport application at Ethiopian National Intelligence and Security Service Headquarters, in this April 4, 2007, file photo.

Last June, leaders of the Bloomington mosque, Al-Farooq, banned a man from its premises after learning he was expressing what they considered radical views. They were concerned about Amir Meshal, 32, a U.S. citizen from New Jersey, interacting with the mosque's youth, according to a police report.

Hassan said Meshal had ample opportunity to influence the young men. "He created a study group of about 25 boys that he used to take to his home every Monday, provide them with a pizza dinner, teach them whatever he wants," Hassan said. "What was he teaching them, then?"

Meshal was later expelled from a second mosque in nearby Eden Prairie after he voiced his disagreement with an imam's lecture distancing Islam from radical groups like ISIS.

Meshal, through his attorney at the ACLU, has denied any involvement with recruiting or radicalizing the travelers to Syria. "I would never suggest that anyone join ISIS or any other group that kills innocent people, nor would I ever provide money to do so," he said in a prepared statement.

'The ones you'd least suspect'

The travelers represent an infinitesimal fraction of the thousands of Somali-American youth who call Minnesota home. The vast majority have managed to build the foundations for productive and stable lives.

Hanad Mohallim's cousin, Abdihafid Ali, said he never saw signs that Mohallim would end up in Syria, engaging in a war that was not his to fight. Ali also knew two additional travelers from school, and said they, too, were good-hearted and wanted to help others.

All three were among "the ones you'd least suspect" of joining a terrorist group, Ali said.

His cousin rarely attended the mosque. "It's not always that the person is religious," Ali said of the Minnesota fighters. "It could just be he failed in something, or failed in life, and believes he has no future for himself."

Efforts spearheaded by U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger attempt to tackle the root causes of radicalization in Minneapolis, in hopes of preventing more young people from joining extremist groups overseas. But intervention is trickier. Counterterrorism experts caution there is no tidy single profile of an ISIS recruit.

Yusra Ismail at her high school graduation in 2013
Yusra Ismail, of St. Paul, graduated from Lighthouse Academy of Nations in the spring of 2013 and wanted to study nursing at Inver Hills Community College, her family said.
Via Flickr

Thousands of people from dozens of Western countries have streamed into Syria. Some were reared in poverty, while others enjoyed middle-class upbringings. Some may want to commit brutalities like those they've seen in Web videos. Experts say others may be seeking thrills, or nurturing a desire to help, or pursuing a utopian dream of building a so-called Islamic state.

And some are women. Yusra Ismail was 19 when she left her home in St. Paul last summer, telling her family she was going to attend a friend's bridal shower. Two days later she called to say she was in Syria to study the Quran. Federal prosecutors have charged her with stealing a passport.

In 2013, Ismail graduated from Lighthouse Academy, a charter school in Minneapolis. A picture from her commencement shows her diploma and a white carnation. Of Ismail, only her eyes are visible, smiling above a black scarf that covers the rest of her face.

Ahmed Elmi, the current executive director, remembers her as a kind and good student.

"So respectful," Elmi said. "Very respectful, but quiet."

No one thought she was at risk of becoming radicalized, even as she started to withdraw from her family and became more fixated on her goal of memorizing the Quran.

Omar Ali
Omar Ali leads a prayer session at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Friday, March 13, 2015.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

As a Somali-American teacher of Islamic studies, Omar Ali has a unique perspective on the youth in his community. The teens who seem to be most vulnerable have had problems with the law or lack jobs or high school diplomas, he said. Many are relatively ignorant of Islam and feel alienated in the community. They've run out of hope.

"They're searching for other ways to fit in," said Ali, who teaches high school students at the Al-Amal Islamic school in Fridley. "They can be susceptible to anybody who tells them there's another opportunity somewhere else."

Years ago, Ali was the director of a large Minneapolis mosque, the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, when some of its worshipers slipped away to train with al-Shabab in Somalia. That group of men, ranging from former gang members to college students, had met secretly to hatch their plans.

"If these kids are involved in these activities, the first people they'll be hiding from are their teachers, their parents and their mosques," Ali said.

It's been more than a year since Hanad Mohallim, the swaggering teen from Apple Valley, left for the Middle East to forge a new identity. According to court documents, his family later told the FBI that three of his cousins, believed to be from Edmonton, Alberta, also traveled to Syria.

Last March, Mohallim confirmed to family in phone conversations that he was in Syria serving as a "border guard" and that he believed he would go to jail if he returned to the United States.

Several months ago, his family received word that he'd been killed. His cousin, Abdihafid Ali, believes someone took advantage of the young man who so desperately craved renewal.

"They used his emotion, his devotion, and his motivation to get better as a person in life," Ali said, "to get him to do what they wanted him to do."