Amid ISIS terror concerns, a Minnesota man is scrutinized but not charged
Few Minnesotans inhabit as uneasy a place as Amir Meshal.
Over the past year, the Bloomington man has been banned from at least two suburban mosques over concerns about his influence on young people. Some of his relatives consider his views extreme. And despite Meshal's objections, he remains on the federal no-fly list because, as federal authorities explained in a letter, they believe he's "operationally capable" of carrying out a violent act of terrorism.
Yet Meshal, a 32-year-old U.S. citizen originally from New Jersey, has never been charged with a crime.
Federal investigators looking into the departures of more than 20 young Minnesotans for ISIS and other violent extremist groups in Syria and Iraq don't say that Meshal, who was involved with a religious study group of mostly young Somali-Americans, has done anything wrong.
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And so he remains free, but under harsh scrutiny, in a post-9/11 climate in which some community members have grown worried about Meshal but have no proof of wrongdoing.
"This situation raises a lot of flags: What does it mean to be suspected? What does it mean to be targeted?" said Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law in New York. "It is very complicated to understand where he fits into the larger conversation about the relationship between law enforcement, the U.S. government, Muslim communities here, and national security."
In other words, the public has no way of knowing all the facts of Meshal's story. That means the question of what he may have done continues to linger uncomfortably.
Until those facts are known, Meshal continues to attract speculation from a tangled web of characters, including a former Ramsey County sheriff, a retired law professor and journalists. And their questions have rippled outward, kicking up fears about Muslims in the broader Twin Cities community.
His attorney says Meshal is stuck in a nightmare.
In search of Meshal
Meshal entered the public eye in Minnesota in June 2014, after leaders of a Bloomington mosque submitted a no-trespassing notice against him. The only clues as to why they expelled him were provided in a single sentence in the police document: "We have concerns about Meshal interacting with our youth."
That sent reporters knocking on doors in a tony Eden Prairie subdivision where they believed he lived — until one night, the story went, he suddenly moved out.
Those visits from news reporters put neighbors on edge. But in that incident, at least, the reporters had stirred the wrong pot. It turned out that a relative of Meshal had been most recently living in the spacious Eden Prairie townhouse, not Meshal himself.
Minnesota is second only to New York in the number of people charged with alleged ISIS-related activities. All told, authorities have charged nine Twin Cities men with conspiring or attempting to join the terrorist group. In addition, one woman was charged with stealing a friend's passport to get to Syria last year.
Five additional young men with close ties to Minnesota who left for the Middle East to fight for ISIS are believed dead. Some community members say others have mysteriously disappeared in recent weeks, and the FBI believes more people are plotting new trips.
In April, when Minnesota's U.S. attorney, Andy Luger, announced the arrests of six young men, he cautioned that there was no "master recruiter" preying on Somali youth. The pattern of radicalization in the case was that of "friend to friend, brother to brother," he said.
Mohamud Galony, an uncle of Zacharia Abdurahman, who pleaded guilty to conspiring to join ISIS, agrees there's probably no single recruiter who led the men into harm's way. Galony knew many of the men through his work as an educational assistant and basketball coach at Heritage Academy in Minneapolis, where several of the defendants attended high school.
"They were not just thugs that were lost on the street," Galony said. "Many of them, if not all of them, had bright futures."
But at the same time, something was likely missing in their lives, he said. Maybe their home life was troubled, or they didn't have a caring adult they could turn to. Figuring out the deeper reasons for why young people are embracing violent ideology would be time better spent than trying to pinpoint the blame on a single person, Galony said.
"I don't think there's a big monster out there that's doing this," he said.
Yet some Somali community members are grasping for answers on how their young men could have been radicalized.
Kamal Hassan is related to Abdullahi Yusuf, one of the teens who's pleaded guilty to conspiring to join ISIS. Meshal was seen buddying up to several young people at the Bloomington mosque. Hassan said he has concerns about Meshal.
"He was giving them lectures every week, giving them free pizza every week," said Hassan, who lives in Edina. "Now some of them are gone to join ISIS, some of them are in jail, and some of them are under investigation."
No one, however, except for a tight-knit circle of friends, knew exactly what Meshal said in these private meetings — and they aren't talking publicly.
Their silence, coupled with the standard reticence of federal investigators, has helped build Meshal's larger-than-life reputation in the Somali-American community.
No doubt, Meshal stood out. Born to Egyptian immigrant parents, he was heavyset, bearded and about a decade older than the young Somali-American men he befriended. He drove a BMW and cut their hair.
Peter Erlinder, a retired St. Paul law professor with experience advising terror suspects, was intrigued. In the spring of 2014, Erlinder was called to consult with Abdullahi Yusuf after the FBI stopped the teen from boarding a plane to the Middle East at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. At the time, no one from Minnesota had been charged in the ISIS investigation.
Erlinder said he went to the Al-Farooq mosque to gather more information. He learned from Yusuf's parents and other families that Yusuf was one of about two dozen youths who, along with Meshal, met to discuss religious topics. They met at the homes of the young men's families and other settings.
Several young people who worshiped at the mosque, along with their parents, told Erlinder that Meshal drew out of the woodwork young people who were sympathetic to ISIS.
"This guy was like a pied piper," he said.
But then Erlinder learned something that was sending the Meshal rumors into full throttle. It turned out that the mysterious man who was befriending Somali-American youth had been suspected by government agents of having ties to al-Qaida.
A complicated past
Meshal has sued the U.S. government twice, claiming federal authorities have wrongly targeted him.
Growing up in New Jersey, Meshal led a life far from radical. His family practiced Islam, but their eldest child rebelled and smoked marijuana, said an uncle, Dr. Magdy Osman. He remembers his nephew as intense, frequently picking fights with his parents.
"He loved too much, he hates too much, he gets upset quickly," Osman said.
When Meshal was in his early 20s, his mother asked Magdy Osman, who was living in Cairo, if he could take Meshal under his wing. Spending time in the family's homeland, where he could get to know Islam again, seemed like the answer, Osman said. Meshal moved to Egypt in 2005.
Meshal straightened out, Magdy Osman recalled. During Ramadan, he went to the mosque and fed the poor.
"He found something he belonged to," Magdy Osman said. "That's how he got into the religion — the humanity of it."
Meshal began to embrace the idea that all Muslims should come under one ruler, or caliph — which is what ISIS is claiming today with what it refers to as an Islamic state under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Meshal's rediscovery of Islam sent him to the Internet to seek more answers, his uncle said.
In 2006, Meshal told his family he wanted to find work in Dubai. But in fact he left for Somalia, where he intended to study the Quran in a place governed by Islamic law, according to his lawsuit. He later told Magdy Osman that his true reason for going there was to find himself a Somali bride.
At the time, the so-called Islamic Courts Union controlled the capital city of Mogadishu. The U.S. government was concerned that Somalia was becoming a refuge for al-Qaida members leaving Afghanistan.
In January 2007, just months after Meshal arrived in the Horn of Africa, Kenyan authorities arrested him as he was fleeing a fight that broke out in Somalia. After he was detained in Kenya and questioned by the FBI, he was transported to Somalia and then to Ethiopia, where he was secretly imprisoned, according to his lawsuit.
By then, Ethiopian forces were occupying parts of Somalia after ousting the Islamic Courts Union. The invasion by the majority-Christian Ethiopia rallied and further radicalized the ICU's youth militia, known as al-Shabab. At around the same time, the first wave of al-Shabab recruits from Minnesota was heading to Somalia to join the fight. Some of those recruits later returned to Minnesota and pleaded guilty to charges of supporting a terror group.
Over the course of about four months, Meshal was questioned more than 30 times in three different countries by U.S. officials who threatened to torture him, denied him access to a lawyer and falsely accused him of receiving training from al-Qaida, according to the ACLU, which is representing him in court.
The agents told Meshal that he wouldn't be allowed to return to the United States until he confessed to being an al-Qaida operative, according to his lawsuit.
Diplomatic cables from the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa released by WikiLeaks indicate that after Meshal was transferred to Ethiopia in February 2007, the U.S. government was conflicted about what to do with him. Public pressure began to mount, with a number of stories in the American press reporting that Meshal, a U.S. citizen by birth, was being secretly held by Ethiopian forces.
In a cable dated April 2, 2007, U.S. Embassy staff wrote from Ethiopia: "Mr. Meshal is suspected of being a foreign fighter with links to al Quaeda." However, the embassy "was notified that the Department of Justice will not seek to prosecute Mr. Meshal at this time," the cable said.
FBI agents interviewed Meshal and described him as "a threat to the general public."
"Agents here have recommended that he be prosecuted in a U.S. court, though we understand from the FBI that there may be insufficient or lack of compelling evidence to prosecute him," said a cable dated April 12, 2007.
Meshal returned to his home in New Jersey in May 2007. He had lost 80 pounds, according to his lawsuit. He was never charged with a crime.
Two years later he sued four FBI agents, alleging they violated his constitutional rights.
In an opinion last year, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan wrote that the federal government's treatment of Meshal was "appalling" and "embarrassing."
But Sullivan dismissed Meshal's case. Legal precedents, he ruled, provided no remedies for U.S. mistreatment of its citizens overseas in matters of national security.
Meshal is appealing that decision. If a three-judge panel rules in his favor, civil liberties experts agree, it would have vast implications for how the U.S. government treats its terror suspects abroad.
In 2011, Meshal took action against the federal government again, this time joining a lawsuit in which plaintiffs objected to their place on the no-fly list. The 13 U.S. citizens and permanent residents claimed they never were informed why they were on the list, nor could they get off it.
Meshal also alleged in the lawsuit that the FBI repeatedly offered to take him off the no-fly list if he agreed to work as an informant. His lawyer, Hina Shamsi of the ACLU in New York, said Meshal declined to do so.
Last November, an official with the Department of Homeland Security wrote Meshal a letter reiterating the government's position that he is a threat to civil aviation or national security.
"In particular, it has been determined that you are an individual who represents a threat of engaging in or conducting a violent act of terrorism and who is operationally capable of doing so," said the letter signed by Deborah Moore, director of the DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program.
Meshal's attorney, Shamsi, said the letter included the "stigmatizing allegations" against Meshal but failed to provide the basis for those allegations. Large parts of the letter, which were submitted as an exhibit as part of his lawsuit, were redacted.
"One of the principles that is so cherished by all of us is you are innocent until you're proven guilty. Mr. Meshal has never even been charged with a crime," Shamsi said in an interview. "And yet through placement on the no-fly list, and sometimes through false statements, rumor and innuendo that may be circulating within the community, he is put in the difficult position of being presumed guilty when he is not."
Meshal declined several requests to be interviewed for this story, referring all questions to his attorneys. In a prepared statement, he said he would never encourage anyone to fight for ISIS or any other group killing innocent people, nor would he provide such groups with money or support.
Meshal has even had to fight suspicions within his own family. His cousin, Tony Osman of Golden Valley, said Meshal opened up to him about his leanings on several occasions.
For a time, Meshal rented a house next door to the Dar Al-Farooq mosque in Minneapolis, where some of the men who were arrested last April on terror-related charges had gathered and prayed. Tony Osman said he saw Meshal and the other men meet multiple times, but Meshal would ask his cousin to leave the room whenever they held discussions.
Tony Osman, a personal trainer who said he worked with Meshal to help him lose weight over several months starting in August 2014, said he remembers workout sessions when Meshal mentioned two slain fighters from Minnesota who were believe to have been killed fighting for ISIS. Meshal expressed admiration for what the two men, Douglas McCain and Abdirahmaan Muhumed, had done, Osman said.
Meshal considered their deaths "a very big success," Osman said.
On a cross-country road trip to an uncle's funeral in June 2014, Meshal and Tony Osman drove through the night to New Jersey. There, in the BMW, he told Osman that the treatment he received while jailed in East Africa "enraged" him.
In Ethiopia, Meshal told his cousin, he endured the harshest conditions. Guards barely fed him and allowed him to use the bathroom only once a day.
"He said that experience embittered him permanently, and that it was unjust," Tony Osman said.
A relative of Meshal, Nabil Ashour of Apple Valley, said he seems more extreme now than he did as a kid.
Ashour said Meshal came to live with his family in Eden Prairie for a summer when they were teenagers. Meshal's accent dripped of New Jersey, and he lugged with him dozens of shoes, Ashour recalled.
"He had an Afro, he had a goatee. He dressed like the hip-hop scene," Ashour said. "He seemed like a normal teenager back then. He was a normal teenager."
Ashour next saw him many years later, after Meshal returned from East Africa. He wore ankle-length pants and sported a full beard. In 2013, Meshal moved in with Ashour for a brief period. Meshal's "rants about the religion" annoyed Ashour, a self-described atheist.
"I said, 'Hey Amir, what happened to you?'" Ashour recalled. "And he said, 'The day of judgment is coming. We've got to worry about the day of judgment.' Everything he said had something to do about his ideology."
Ashour said Meshal referred to non-Muslims as infidels and expressed hatred for the U.S. government.
But others within this large extended family cast doubt on Ashour's and Tony Osman's recollections.
Osman's half-sister, Mariam Meshal of New York, said her older cousin, Amir, never struck her as radical.
"I never, ever got that impression of him," she said. "I see a father who's being harassed by the media, a father who's lost jobs, got kicked out of the mosques ... He's a person who wants to get on with his life."
And Magdy Osman insists that although his nephew practices an austere form of Islam, he's not violent. He said he's heard Meshal condemn the brutal tactics of ISIS on many occasions.
Magdy Osman said that about six years ago, FBI agents in New Jersey interviewed him about Meshal after he returned to the United States. "They asked me, 'Do you think there's rationale for us to keep our eyes on him?'" Osman recalled. "I said, 'Why not? But don't intervene in his life.'"
Magdy Osman said he tried to persuade Meshal to be in regular contact with the FBI in hopes that investigators would make his life less difficult, but his nephew refused.
'I'm an investigator'
Former Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher has been closely tracking developments concerning Meshal. Following his re-election loss in 2010, Fletcher, who is white and served four terms as sheriff, turned his energies to immersing himself in the local Somali community and created the Center for Somalia History Studies.
Now a City Council member for the small suburb of Vadnais Heights, Fletcher gathers tips and studies Somali culture. Fletcher and his colleagues offer six-hour training sessions on Somali history and terror recruitment to law enforcement agencies and other groups.
And even though he's retired from law enforcement, Fletcher has been cobbling together his own intelligence on Minnesota's cases. He befriended some of Meshal's relatives, including Tony and Magdy Osman, in his quest to find more about Meshal.
He said he sees his own inquiries into Meshal as an outgrowth of his desire to help the Somali community.
"I'm an investigator by trade," Fletcher said. "I just wanted to answer the question in my mind [and] what the community was asking me: Was Amir Meshal an informant? Or was he the target of an FBI investigation?"
Fletcher said he first began looking into Meshal after Abdullahi Yusuf was stopped at the airport in May 2014. Within days, Fletcher and local Somali activist Omar Jamal met Yusuf's father and a relative at Fabulous Fern's in St. Paul and discussed Meshal, Fletcher said.
But Yusuf's father, Sadiik Yusuf, told MPR News that his son, Abdullahi, never mentioned Meshal in conversations with him. The father added that the only information he knows about Meshal has come from what he's heard in the media.
Just free speech?
Amir Meshal's supporters say the man is simply misunderstood.
Among them is Neelain Muhammad, a ubiquitous fixture in some young Twin Cities Muslim circles. Meshal and Muhammad may seem like an unusual pairing — the latter is 61, an African-American convert from New York. Muhammad describes himself as an "old G from the street." He teaches martial arts at local mosques.
Muhammad said Meshal respects him as an elder, taking Muhammad out to dinner and checking on him when he is sick. Muhammad, who was accustomed to sleeping on the floor, said one day Meshal surprised him with a gift that still makes him smile: a new bed.
He said he never heard Meshal indoctrinate young people. But in the next breath, Muhammad said it's difficult for a strict Muslim to live in America, where one's remarks might be misconstrued. And he said that's especially the case when debating foreign policy, for which there are few safe spaces to express one's grievances.
Muhammad likened the experience to being a Packers fan rooting for Green Bay at a Vikings home game.
"We have to be careful of what we say," Muhammad said. "Every Muslim is interested in what's happening in Syria, what's happening in Afghanistan. If a Muslim in Burma is hurting, all Muslims are concerned about it, but maybe we can't express what we really feel here because we'll be targeted."
Even within the American Muslim community, though, some people are unsure how to handle Meshal's politically charged statements. Last fall Meshal was ousted from a second mosque, Masjid al-Tawba in Eden Prairie, after a worshiper told mosque leaders that Meshal voiced his disagreement with an imam's call to distance Islam from ISIS and other radical groups.
A lasting stigma
In a court affidavit filed last month, Meshal described how the stigma of being on the no-fly list was disrupting his life. Last November, he was hired by the Minnesota Department of Transportation but was dismissed three weeks later.
"I lost my job after some of the other employees complained about working with someone on the No Fly List, and a local TV news affiliate aired a story about my having the job, and describing me as a suspected terrorist because of my placement on the No Fly List," Meshal wrote in his affidavit.
He also said he has been repeatedly stopped by police officers while driving, despite having done nothing wrong.
His uncle, Magdy Osman, said the FBI intercepted Meshal years ago while he was driving from New Jersey toward Canada to marry a Somali girl he met online. "The FBI stopped him and said, 'You can't go,'" Osman said, adding that the relationship ended after that.
Meshal was pulled over most recently in May along Interstate Hwy. 80 in Pennsylvania, while he was driving back to Minnesota from his brother's wedding in New Jersey along with his wife and 7-month-old baby, according to the court document. He recalled driving 5 mph over the speed limit and keeping up with the flow of traffic.
An officer in an unmarked Ford Explorer pulled Meshal over and identified himself as with the state police. The officer told Meshal not to worry and said he only wanted to ask him some questions, according to the affidavit.
But soon more officers arrived. Meshal, his wife and his baby were ordered out of the car while a police dog sniffed the vehicle. One of the officers implied he knew Meshal was unable to fly, even though Meshal had not brought up the matter.
According to Meshal's account, when he questioned the need for his family to leave the car, one of the officers told Meshal: "Look, I don't know you, and I don't know your wife. She could pull a gun and shoot me in the face when I get close to the car. I'm going home tonight, so she's got to come out." A male officer also patted down Meshal's wife, which Meshal said violated her religious beliefs as a practicing Muslim.
"The entire experience left us scared and humiliated," Meshal wrote. "I felt powerless to protect my wife and child and to shield them from the effects of my placement on the No Fly List."
Within an hour of the initial stop, the family was free to go.
Now Meshal appears to be seeking a new job driving large buses or trucks. On Sept. 9, he received his Class A commercial driver's license. It includes endorsements allowing him to operate school buses or tank vehicles transporting liquids or gases.
A Department of Public Safety spokesperson said there was nothing in Meshal's background check, such as a felony or drug offenses, that would prohibit him from obtaining his license. Placement on the no-fly list isn't grounds to deny someone a license, said spokesperson Bruce Gordon.
"The Department of Public Safety is required by law to issue the license," Gordon said in an email. "Denying a license for this reason would require a change in state or federal law."
Magdy Osman, Meshal's uncle, said his nephew is constantly trying to prove his innocence and provide for his family. But he said a person can bear only so many interferences in his life. Osman said he told the FBI as much when they questioned him about Meshal years ago.
"The last thing we want is this man to be desperate," Osman said. "If you have a desperate person with no future, [it] can lead him to do crazy things."