In the past 18 months, 20 young Somali men have disappeared from Minneapolis, Minnesota -- only to re-emerge in Somalia as part of an al-Qaida-backed militia. Some claimed they didn't know they were being recruited by the al-Shabab militia when they accepted a free ticket to Somalia. Their families and the community were shocked to learn their whereabouts. In his first ever visit to the U.S., Somalia's president asked the Minneapolis community to beware of radical Islamic recruiters.
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Warning for Somali families, community
In a speech to the Minnesota diaspora this week, Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed warned the community to be on the lookout for radical Islamic groups who want to recruit young people to fight in Somalia.
"I am deeply disturbed to hear a group of young Somalis have been brainwashed by evil-minded individuals to go back to Somalia and engage in violence years after their parents were forced to flee fighting," Sharif said.
Youth recruited in place of worship
In the past 18 months, 20 young Somali American men have left Minneapolis to join al-Shabab, which means "the youth." The militia is fighting against the U.N.-backed transitional Somali government.
Eighty thousand Somalis live in the Minneapolis area. Most came to the U.S. to raise their families away from the decades old violence in their homeland.
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The 19-year-old son of Abayte and Aweys Osman disappeared in November of 2008. Eventually, he called. In a brief conversation, he said he was in Somalia, but would not say why he was there.
"I don't have any reason why he would go to Somalia. I took him out of Somalia when he was very young," Abayte said.
The community learned several other young men were missing and rumored to be fighting with al-Shabab. The Osmans constantly surfed the Internet for news about al-Shabab. In July, they made a horrifying discovery.
"My husband was surfing the web and came across a picture that looked like our son," Abayte says, "And he told me to come over and look at it."
Government forces took the photographs of what they thought was a foreign fighter killed with other members of al-Shabab in a Mogadishu battle. The government wanted to prove the militias were backed by foreign influence. The Osmans are Somalis of Arab heritage. Their skin tone is lighter than most Somalis. They knew the government had made a mistake. The photographs were of their son Jamal.
"We are very sad about what happened to him. And we ask God to bless his soul. We are surprised that he left in the first place. And we are surprised that he was killed in the fight," she adds.
Caught between cultures?
Five of the 20 men are now dead. One was the first ever American suicide bomber. Three pled guilty to providing material assistance to a terrorist organization and are in U.S. federal prison. The rest are still believed to be in Somalia. In court proceedings it was revealed they were recruited at a place of worship. An investigation into how is still ongoing.
The community is still asking the question "Why?" Mukhtar Osman went to school with some of the young men. He says Somali kids are often caught between American and the Islamic culture. Jihad (holy war) was a way for them to resolve the identity conflict.
"They don't know where they belong," Mukhtar says, "They don't know are they real Muslims or not. So I think that is some of the issue that the Somali youth are dealing with in America."
Community activist Omar Jamal has been working with the families of the young men. He says the community is bonding together to protect their children.
"We have session of raising awareness and we are reaching out to the mosques and encouraging the community to work with the government, the FBI, and law enforcement agencies to make sure this gets stopped," he says. "This should not go on."
In his speech, President Sharif offered his condolences to the families who lost sons. He has also pledged to try to find the remaining young men in Somalia and bring them home to the U.S.