When more than a dozen young Somali immigrants from the Midwestern state of Minnesota went missing last year, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations made finding them a top priority. The FBI believes that many of the men went to Somalia to train with the militant group al-Shabab. The investigation has generated increased suspicion and fear in the Somali community.
As the head of the Abubakar As Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis, Omar Hurre is struggling to find answers as to why and how members of his center disappeared without a trace.
"Nobody knows the situation, how these young people decided to go to Somalia, who convinced them if there is any person who did that," he said. "Who paid for the trips, if there is anybody who paid for them? Most of the community is just waiting for those answers from the law enforcement community."
But according to Hurre, there have been few answers from that law enforcement community, which includes the FBI.
"The part that is frustrating is the way that they are doing their investigation," he noted. "The people that they are targeting, mostly students who are not familiar with or have never been in investigations or interrogations before, and have a kind of phobia with the law enforcement agencies."
Hurre's concerns are echoed throughout the Somali community in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Many have have come forward with complaints about the FBI, says Taneeza Islam at the Council on American Islamic Relations in Minnesota.
"Everybody is scared. They don't know what's really happening. Just up until recently, the FBI hasn't even really said they are conducting an investigation here. We don't know what type of information they are trying to gather."
That growing fear and suspicion is something the FBI says it is trying to correct. Special agent E.K. Wilson is taking part in the investigation.
"What we are attempting to do though is reach out to concerned parents, concerned members of the community in an effort to get them to feel comfortable to come to us with those concerns, concerns about their youth the safety of their children, either directly to the FBI here or through a community leader or through an elder in the community," he explained.
The FBI's outreach effort in the Somali American community in the Twin Cities is not new. Wilson says the FBI has had good relations with community leaders for several years.
The FBI would not confirm recent reports that some of the young men who disappeared returned to Minneapolis and are now in protective custody. Those in the community VOA spoke to also could not confirm those reports.
But as the FBI continues to search for answers, Taneeza Islam says it needs to change its methods.
"The challenge is how do you build a relationship with a community when you've already started interrogating in ways the community is already fearful of," she added.
Breaking through that barrier of mistrust is one way the FBI hopes to get the answers it needs to ensure public safety, and to return the missing men to their families.
"It's okay to come to us," he said. "They don't have to feel threatened. They're not going to be detained. Any conversation, any information they provide us is going to be voluntary. They aren't going to be arrested or be sent away to a detention camp. They're American citizens, we are here to protect American citizens, and we share the same concerns that they do here in their community."
In addition to the ongoing FBI investigation, a special grand jury has opened proceedings on the disappearances. Several members of the Somali American community have been issued subpoenas to testify in those hearings.
Kane Farabaugh, VOA News, Minneapolis, Minnesota.