It didn't trouble Burhan Hassan's mother that her son had been spending more time at the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, Minneapolis's largest mosque. A 17-year-old senior at Roosevelt High, Hassan and his family had fled civil war in Somalia when he was a toddler. Some of the other Somali immigrants in the Cedar-Riverside housing project where he lived got drawn into gangs with names like Murda Squad and Somali Mafia. But Hassan was getting good grades and talking about going to college, says his uncle Abdirizak Bihi. When the boy didn't come home from school on Nov. 4, his family assumed he was at the mosque. By evening, his mother had searched his room and found his laptop was gone and clothes were missing. Later, she discovered his passport had been taken from a drawer she kept locked. "That's when we realized something serious had happened," says Bihi.
Hassan, his family later found out, had boarded a chain of connecting flights to Amsterdam and Nairobi and a boat to Kismaayo in Somalia. The city is a stronghold of al-Shabab, which is one of the country's most hard-line jihadist groups and has close ties to Al Qaeda. He traveled with at least two and up to five other young Somali-Americans from Minneapolis, according to others in the community and law-enforcement officials. Within a day, Hassan phoned home to report he was safe—but when probed, he said he couldn't divulge more and hung up. The call and the circumstances of his sudden disappearance led his family to suspect the worst—that Hassan had somehow been persuaded to join Islamic militants fighting for control of the lawless country.
That suspicion is now shared by counterterrorism officials and the FBI, who are probing whether al-Shabab or other Somali Islamic groups are actively recruiting in a few cities across the United States. The officials say as many as 20 Somali-Americans between the ages of 17 and 27 have left their Minneapolis homes in the past 18 months under suspicious circumstances. Their investigation deepened when one of the missing men, Minnesotan Shirwa Ahmed, blew himself up alongside other suicide bombers in Somalia last October, killing dozens of al-Shabab's political opponents and civilians. Ahmed had also prayed at Abubakar, and within weeks the FBI put the imam of the mosque, Sheik Abdirahman Ahmed, on a no-fly list. Among the questions investigators are asking: Who persuaded the young men to go? Who paid for their flights? And what role, if any, has the mosque played in their alleged recruitment?
Since al-Shabab is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations, traveling to Somalia to train or fight with the group is illegal. But security officials involved in the investigation have a bigger concern—that a jihadist group able to enlist U.S. nationals to fight abroad might also be able to persuade Somali-Americans to act as sleeper agents here in the United States. Al-Shabab has no history of targeting the U.S. But the group has grown closer to Al Qaeda since the American-backed invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia in 2006. Al-Shabab has since been working with a number of non-Somali operatives wanted by the United States, including Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, an architect of the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, according to intelligence officials.
As if to underscore the danger, early last week the FBI and Department of Homeland Security warned in a bulletin for the first time that al-Shabab might try to carry out an attack in America—timed to disrupt the presidential inauguration. A government official, who asked for anonymity discussing sensitive intelligence, tells NEWSWEEK the information came from an informant who notified security officials that people affiliated with al-Shabab might already be here. The tip-off proved to be a false alarm. Still, security officials view the bulletin and the disappearances in Minnesota as a warning that Somalia's brew of lawlessness and radicalism might rebound on the United States. "You have to ask yourself, how long is it before one of these guys comes back here and blows himself up?" says a senior U.S. counterterrorism official, who also wouldn't be quoted on the record discussing intel.
Hassan, like several of the other boys who have gone missing, was raised by a single mother; his father was killed in an accident before the family immigrated. The morning after his disappearance, his family searched for him at hospitals in Minneapolis and then went to the police. Osman Ahmed, another of Hassan's uncles, says by then at least two other Somali families had complained to police that their children had not come home. (The Minneapolis Police Department referred NEWSWEEK to the FBI, which would provide only general information.) In a search of one of the missing boys' rooms, family members found an itinerary issued by a Minneapolis travel agency.
The itinerary, obtained by NEWSWEEK, lists two other travelers in addition to Burhan Hassan and charts a punishing five-leg journey to Mogadishu departing Nov. 1 (the reservations were later changed to Nov. 4). The document is significant because it suggests sophisticated planning. Instead of leaving Minneapolis on the same plane, each young man was to travel alone—one to Chicago and two to Boston on separate flights. The counterterrorism official familiar with the investigation says the staggered departures could be evidence of terrorist "tradecraft." Financing of the trips has also raised suspicions. The multiple flights would have cost at least $2,000 for each traveler and were probably paid for in cash. Osman Ahmed says his nephew had no job and could not have accessed such a large sum.
The disappearances have focused unwanted attention on Abubakar and sown tensions within the community. To date, no one has produced evidence that recruiting was underway at any mosque in the city. But several of the young men who left their homes attended prayers and youth programs at Abubakar, and some family members and community organizers believe there's a connection. The most outspoken of them is Omar Jamal, who runs the Somali Justice Advocacy Center. "Someone at the mosque was getting into the minds of these kids," he says.
Abubakar is wedged between modest single-family homes in a residential neighborhood of Minneapolis. On Fridays, several hundred people gather in the carpeted main hall to pray and hear Imam Abdirahman's sermon; at least 40,000 Somalis live in Minnesota, with the majority concentrated in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area. Though most of the worshipers on a recent Friday appeared to be Somali, the imam delivered his 20-minute sermon first in Arabic, then in English and, finally, in Somali. The topic that day was injustice—more specifically, the injustices Muslims must refrain from committing. The list included suicide. "Don't kill yourself," he exhorted the crowd. "Anyone who does is unfair to himself, and Allah will put him in hellfire."
NEWSWEEK found a small number among those who have worshiped at Abubakar and a recently closed sub-branch known as Imam Shafii Mosque who believed the tone was sometimes extreme. Yusuf Shaba, who writes articles for the Warsan Times, a Somali-English newspaper in Minneapolis, says he and his teenage sons attended a lecture at Imam Shafii Mosque in November by a visiting speaker who had fought in Somalia. His presentation turned into a rant. "He talked about the need for jihad," Shaba says. "He got very emotional." Shaba has since kept his children away.
Imam Abdirahman tells NEWSWEEK that he recalls seeing some of the missing young men at the mosque. But none talked about returning to Somalia. "The youths did not consult their imam, just as they did not consult their elders," he says. He denies that any fighters from Somalia (or other countries) lectured at the mosque, and says Abubakar focuses solely on the community, religion and family: "We give the religious perspective." Asked about the possibility that outsiders might have used the mosque to scout recruits, he says, "Mosques are always open to the public … but I don't know anyone of that kind who recruited [here] or talked to the young men."
The imam says he learned the FBI had placed him on the no-fly list when police at the Minneapolis airport prevented him from traveling to Saudi Arabia in November for the hajj. About the same time, FBI agents began coordinating the return to Minnesota of the remains of Shirwa Ahmed, the young man who blew himself up in Somalia a month earlier. His family buried him at a cemetery in Burnsville, south of Minneapolis. As for Burhan Hassan, his uncle Bihi asks, "How does a child who's been in the U.S. since he was 4 or 5 become convinced to leave his parents and go to war in Somalia?" A number of families across Minneapolis are wondering the same thing.