WASHINGTON — Abdi Mohamud Nur seemed like a pretty average American kid.
Part of Minneapolis’ sizable community of Somali-Americans, Nur was obedient and good-natured, his sister, Ifrah, said. He loved basketball. He graduated from a Minneapolis high school last year and enrolled at a local college.
But in March of this year, Ifrah said, things changed. Nur, 20, joined a local mosque in the Minnesotan city. He became “reserved and unsocial,” Iftah told VOA.
On May 29, he left his relatives and flew to Istanbul. The following day he sent a text message to his sister, telling his family not to worry and saying he “wants to join the jihad in Syria in search of paradise.”
That was the last his family heard of him.
Nur's case has caught the attention of the FBI, which this week announced it was investigating whether young Somalis in the United States were becoming radicalized, seeking to join jihadist groups in Syria and elsewhere.
The agency’s Minneapolis office posted an announcement on its Web site on Tuesday asking people to contact law enforcement “[I]f you know anyone who is planning to and/or has traveled to a foreign country for armed combat or who is being recruited for such activities.”
The issue of young men, Somalis or otherwise, being radicalized in the United States and recruited to fight in Syria or Somalia gained further attention in recent weeks with the case of Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, a Florida man who died in a suicide attack in Syria on May 25. It was believed to be the first time a U.S. citizen has been involved in an attack of this kind as part of the Syrian civil war.
Analysts in both the United States and Canada, which also has a sizable population of Somali refugees, said stopping recruitment is difficult for Western authorities.
Groups like the notorious Somali terror group al-Shabab find followers because the organization works “within [the] family network and family system,” said Mubin Shaikh, a Canada-based Muslim scholar and former extremist who infiltrated some radical groups while working for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
“One of the things we know about people who join extremist groups is, they joined because of relatives that they have in the group or friends that they have in the group," Shaikh said. "So it’s through those networks that recruitment of this style occurs."
Groups like al-Shabab, which was behind last year’s gun attack on a shopping mall in Kenya, are able to reach young Muslims living in North America because some of them do not feel accepted by Western society, or are insulted or discriminated against.
“They feel that people don’t respect their culture and their values and their beliefs," he said. "So it’s very easy for them to push away, to not feel they are citizens here [although] they live here. So the lure is with this group that offers them some meaning, some identity, something to be proud of."
Recruiting in Canada
Mohamed Hassan Hersi, a 28-year-old Somali man living in Toronto, allegedly sought to do the same thing that Nur may have done: answer the call for jihad. In March 2011, he was arrested at the Toronto airport, on his way to Egypt, by Canadian authorities working undercover.
Authorities alleged his ultimate destination was Somalia. Hersi insisted he was going only to Egypt, to learn Arabic. On May 30, a Canadian court convicted him of trying to join al-Shabab.
Hersi’s mother said in an interview with VOA's Somali Service her son is innocent, a victim of “injustice."
“I feel like if you are a Muslim, the religion is the problem," Maryam Abdirahman Mohamed, said in an interview. "The only [reason] my son [was charged], he was good religious, going to the mosque, avoid bad things. And the reason they catch him … I don’t know … they have Islamophobia.”
Experts estimate between 50 and 100 men and women of Somali origin have left Canada in recent years to join jihadist groups in Somalia or Syria.
In 2000, a group of high schoolers in Toronto formed a gang known as Toronto 18. All were Muslims, second-generation residents whose families came from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq or Somalia.
Mubin Shaikh infiltrated the group. One of the people he met was an individual named Mohamed Elmi Ibrahim, who joined al-Shabab in 2009. He was killed in a gun battle in Somalia the following year.
“I actually did know this person," Shaikh said. "I did meet him in my dealings with some of the people in the community. Twenty-two-year-old kid, and there were six others who left Toronto who joined [al-Shabab]."
Another member of the group was Ali Mohamed Dirie, who traveled to Syria in 2011 and joined the militant group Jabhat al-Nusra. He was killed in Syria last September.
Shaikh said he knew Ali Dirie through Fahim Ahmed, one of the leaders of Toronto 18.
"I knew Ali Dirie was in prison, Fahim would speak to him every week, and we would discuss. For example, while he was in prison he was upset,” Shaikh said. “He didn’t want to be in prison; he hated everyone who was there - non-Muslims especially. He felt important to not correct his behavior, even [when] the parole said when you get out you will return to some sort of criminal behavior."
Recruiting in America
Across the border, in the United States, at least two dozen Somali-Americans, mostly from the Minneapolis area, have gone to Somalia and joined al-Shabab. A small number of non-Somalis also joined the group, including the late Omar Hammami of Alabama and Jehad Serwan Mostafa of San Diego, California.
The recruitment began not long after al-Shabab was founded in 2007, out of the remnants of other Somali Islamist groups. In October 2008, Shirwa Ahmed, a 26-year-old American citizen of Somali origin, was the first U.S. citizen ever to carry out a suicide mission in Somalia.
Nur’s sister, Iftah, said it appeared that Nur initially left Minneapolis, traveling with 12 other people to New Jersey, where they all caught flights. The other 12 traveled to Somalia. Iftah said her brother told her he was interviewed in a hotel in Istanbul by Turkish police. She said he had since left the hotel, but she didn’t know where he was.
Despite increased government scrutiny, the recruitment trend has continued. Al-Shabab will find willing young people ready to join the cause unless the challenges facing ethnic Somalis in the West are overcome, Shaikh said.
In the Toronto area, he said, about 30 percent of students of Somali origin drop out before graduating high school. Many of them are vulnerable to Islamist recruitment campaigns.
Cultural differences and high unemployment play a role, too.
"Fathers lose their identity as the bread winner," Shaikh said. "They are trying to raise children in a very different society. ... These are some of the things that drive these kids to go and join groups, which give them some meaning.”
Mohamed Hassan of VOA's Somali Service contributed to this report.