Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman does volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity in northern Minneapolis as a teenager.
Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman does volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity in northern Minneapolis as a teenager.

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - It was midmorning Nov. 9, 2014, when two FBI agents visited the Minneapolis home of Yusuf Aden Abdurahman. They asked if he knew the whereabouts of his son, Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman, 20.

"To our knowledge he is in town, in college," the elder Abdurahman told them.

The agents informed him that the FBI had stopped his son at JFK airport in New York as he prepared to board a flight to Athens via Moscow. He hadn't been arrested, the agents said, but the FBI had reason to believe Zacharia had planned to make his way to Syria to join Islamic State.

Abdurahman and his wife looked at each other. "I felt the sky has fallen on us," he said.

Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman, 20, shown in a 2015 pho
Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman, 20, shown in a 2015 photo from the Sherburne County, Minnesota, Sheriff’s Office, is among seven Minnesota men of Somali descent that have been charged with attempting to join the Islamic State group.

That was nothing compared to the feeling five months later, when Zacharia was arrested, this time for co-planning a scheme to obtain false passports, travel from Minnesota to Mexico, and fly overseas to hook up with IS, an organization the U.S. government has designated as a foreign terrorist group.

In September 2015, Zacharia pleaded guilty to conspiring to travel to Syria in an effort to provide material support to IS. He is one of six who pleaded guilty to the same charge; they await sentencing in November. Each could get up to 15 years in jail.

Seeking answers

Zacharia's attempt to join IS has led his father to question how his son could have been radicalized into an Islamist militant. It's a problem that has plagued Minnesota's Somali-American community for a decade, since the Somali insurgent group al-Shabab began recruiting in the state.

Zacharia did not seem a likely recruit for such groups. He was born in Minneapolis in 1995, part of the first generation of Somali-Americans to be U.S. citizens from birth.

Abdurahman says he was close to his son, played games with him, took him to movies. He says he and his wife loved Zacharia and pushed him to succeed. "We came to live in a country different in culture to ours, so we ran and worked hard to get him into education," Abdurahman said.

The work seemed to be paying off. After nine years of public school, Zacharia attended a local Somali charter high school and graduated in 2013. After a year off, he enrolled at Minneapolis Community and Technical College with the goal of becoming a software engineer. He also got a job at Hennepin County Hospital.

But IS sympathizers got their hooks in him anyway, his father said. Abdurahman blames Somali education centers, which he said do not protect children from radical religious thought.

Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman at his graduation from t
Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman at his graduation from the Heritage Academy of Science and Technology, a school of mostly Somali-American students, in Minneapolis in 2014.

"When something happens among these students it stays among them, there is no one from a different culture who says. ‘No, I don't see it that way, this is the correct way ... what you are involved in is not religious, don't do crazy,'" he said.

Deqa Hussein, whose son also pleaded guilty to the same charges as Zacharia, agrees.

"I took him to Quran school when he was 16 years old. At 18 years old, the FBI contacted me and said your son is palling around, walking with, dining with a group of people whom we are suspicious of," she said.

Hussein adds that she is not saying the teachers or imams recruited her son for Islamic State. But they didn't safeguard him either.

"There are people who live with us in this country, who look like us, who have the same religion as us, but differ in interpretations," she said. "The people who recruited my son have used Quran school and mosques as a cover."

Hiding responsibility

Sheikh Ahmed Tajir, the imam of Ummatul Islam Center, says the criticism is not justified.

"Somali-chartered schools ... and Quran schools play an important role," he said. "The management are Somalis, the children meet their cousins and uncles in these schools, and they protect our good culture."

He defends mosques, as well.

Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

"The mosques deserve honor and respect,” he said. “They are doing the work of religious ministries. They deserve blessing, they produce hundreds of Quran memorizing students, and they bring back hundreds from falling off the train."

But Abdirizaka Bihi, a Minneapolis community leader, says mosques should not be in denial. Bihi's nephew Burhan Hassan traveled to Somalia in 2008 to join al-Shabab and died there.

"Most of the young people who traveled to join ISIS or al-Shabab, [it's] known which mosques they used to go to and the messages they used to hear. We should not hide from it," Bihi said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

"A young man who was born here, who goes to cinemas in the Mall of America or a university is not just going to wake up one morning, go to Google and then say I'm looking for al-Shabab and ISIS, or I want to find out somewhere I can blow myself up. There are people who mentor and prepare them," Bihi said.

Abdurahman says he is very pleased that his son was arrested before he traveled to Syria. He now regularly visits his son in prison. He says Zacharia regrets what he has done.

"He has missed playing with kids, school, friends and the family, and above all, his actions interrupted his plans to marry," he said. "A girl was ready to marry him, but now who is going to wait for a loser?"

Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA