A one-man mission to stop homegrown Somali terrorism in U.S.
Nowhere in the U.S. is the problem of Islamist extremism so concentrated as in downtown Minneapolis, where about 10,000 Somali immigrants live. In the past three years, at least 25 young men have disappeared to fight for al-Shabab, a radicalized group with ties to al-Qaida and aspirations of attacking the United States.
The Washington Post
His afternoon meeting was an urgent matter of national security, but Abdirizak Bihi needed to borrow $10 for the gas needed to get there. The tank in his old truck had sat empty for days, forcing him to ride around in a dress shirt and tie on a borrowed girls bicycle with purple handlebars.
Now he wanted to travel 10 miles down the freeway, and he wanted to move fast. He walked out of his high-rise apartment building and stopped a friend on the sidewalk to plead for a loan. "I promise it's for a good cause," he said, and the friend handed over a few bills. Then Bihi drove off to investigate his community's latest homegrown terrorist.
During the previous few days, Bihi, 46, had pieced together some clues that were equal parts surreal and familiar: Farah Mohamed Beledi, 27, had been a Minnesota kid with American problems who ditched classes in high school, joined a gang and answered to the nickname "Bloody." He had gone to prison for stabbing someone at a soccer game and had come out two years later as a radicalized Muslim, spreading stories about the "United Snakes of America" and meeting other men at a Minneapolis mall to talk about jihad.
He disappeared to Somalia and joined al-Shabab, an Islamist extremist group with ties to al-Qaida and aspirations of attacking the United States.
A terrorist website released an audio recording early this year with hints of Beledi's Midwestern accent: "I would like to talk to my brothers and sisters out there in the West, or wherever you are: Brothers, come. Come to jihad. Die like lions."
Then, in late May, a suicide bomber killed himself and three others in Mogadishu. Photos of the crime scene showed Beledi slumped facedown in the dirt, his military fatigues blown to pieces, his jacket still outfitted with the bomb's trigger.
One week had passed since the deadly attack, and now Bihi was driving to meet with Beledi's stepmother at her apartment in nearby St. Paul. Bihi is the founder, director and sole employee of a community-based counterterrorism program, and he has spent much of the past three years going to meetings just like this.
The FBI and the Justice Department had come to rely on his help during investigations; he had been a star witness at a congressional hearing in March about radicalization among American Muslims. But as spring turned to summer, Bihi wondered whether the problem had grown too big for him.
"More kids become terrorists, more families are broken, and nothing ever changes," he said.
There have been 51 homegrown jihadist plots or attacks in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, according to law-enforcement reports, and their frequency is increasing.
Nowhere else is the problem of radicalization so concentrated as in Bihi's section of downtown Minneapolis, where about 10,000 Somali immigrants live in a collection of faded apartment towers bordering the freeway.
At least 25 young men have disappeared from here to fight for al-Shabab in the past three years, and dozens more are being investigated on suspicion of recruiting or fundraising on behalf of the terrorist organization. None of them so far have tried to attack in the United States, but intelligence gathered by law-enforcement suggests that they will.
One of the first Americans to vanish from this city was Bihi's nephew, a 17-year-old honors student who joined al-Shabab in 2008 and was killed the next year. Bihi, a former interpreter for local hospitals, responded by launching a youth advocacy program to combat extremist Islam. He earns no salary, and the undertaking has jeopardized his finances, marriage and reputation.
Many mosques, elected officials and even law-enforcement agencies have hesitated to address the radicalization of a small percentage of U.S. Muslims, because the focus on homegrown jihad is considered either the next front in the war on terrorism or an Islamophobic witch hunt sure to create more ill will.
In his neighborhood of Minneapolis, Bihi is known either as "Super Somali," for his frenetic efforts to fight al-Shabab, or as "ma'angag," a Somali word that means obstinate, because some believe his relationship with law enforcement amounts to a betrayal of the Somali-American community. One local mosque barred him from services; another invited him to join its leadership committee.
Bihi describes himself as an observant Muslim who prays daily and fasts during Ramadan. He said it is his responsibility to "save the religion I love from a very small number of extremists."
On that sweltering afternoon in early June, he parked his car in front of the stepmother's apartment in St. Paul, unsure whether to expect cooperation or resistance. He had spoken with Beledi a few times in 2008 before the young man showed signs of joining al-Shabab, but Bihi had never met his stepmother.
He walked to the end of a long hallway and entered a stuffy, one-bedroom apartment. Mumina Roba sat with her feet propped on a coffee table and fanned herself with a newspaper. Bihi knelt down by her side. They spoke for the next 10 minutes in rapid Somali.
Roba said she had come to Minnesota in 1996 with Beledi, then 12. She had taken care of the boy since his father's death in Somalia's civil war. Beledi had been a good kid, then a troublemaker, then a criminal. She lost touch with him when he was in prison, but relatives told her he had joined Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, Minnesota's largest mosque, and then moved to Kenya.
She heard nothing more until the FBI knocked on her door with bloody pictures of Beledi from across the world. Her asthma and arthritis were acting up. Her face had swelled from so much crying. She was tired, but mostly confused. Who had turned her stepson into a terrorist? How had he ended up in Somalia? What could she have done to stop it?
"I don't understand," she said.
Bihi heard from law-enforcement officials that al-Shabab recruiters were gaining momentum in Minnesota and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Bihi had fewer resources than ever, with no money to run his programs and a shrinking support base within the community. The lackluster economy meant that most local Somali-American teenagers were unemployed for the summer, leaving them frustrated and bored. Bihi guesses that as many as 25 more will fall prey to al-Shabab recruiters before school begins this fall.
"Unless we figure out a way to stop this soon," he said, "we are headed for disaster."
A desk and a phone
Bihi works from 6 a.m. until midnight so his business hours overlap with allies in Canada and Somalia. On most days, he smokes two packs of cigarettes and forgets to eat breakfast, so now his size-small dress shirts drape off his shoulders like garbage bags. He had burned through $20,000 in donations and $10,000 in savings to pay for his community program while his family scraped by on his wife's salary as a teacher's aide. Recently, his wife had forced him to sign a contract requiring him to make money or continue sleeping on the couch.
Officially, Bihi is the director of the Somali Education and Special Advocacy Center, but in truth he is the center, aided only by a Samsung cellphone and a donated desk in the offices of Mo's Building Maintenance.
His program is part of an emerging movement that Washington officials refer to as "CVE," or "countering violent extremism." The idea is simple: Inoculate young Muslims against the risks of radicalization by making them feel entrenched and happy in their communities.
The U.S. government has yet to reach a consensus on how, exactly, counter-radicalization should work. Some Democrats argue that focusing on Muslim extremism alone is discriminatory. Some Republicans argue that the country's security leaves no room for political correctness. And many officials on both sides are wary of funding community-run counter-radicalization programs, for fear of accidentally partnering with extremists.
Other countries have forged ahead: Saudi Arabia funds a team of Islamic scholars who roam online message boards to argue against extremist rhetoric. Germany hosts an annual retreat for Muslim leaders. Britain distributes $100 million in government money to community-based preventive programs.
The few U.S. programs that exist are untested and disparate. There is Mohamed Elibiary, a self-described "master of the last-ditch save" from Texas who helps law-enforcement agencies de-radicalize known extremists. There is Imad Hamad, who runs a monthly program in Dearborn, Mich., that brings together imams and FBI agents. There is the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which sponsors trips for teenagers to Hollywood so they can learn about a quintessentially American place often demonized by Islamist groups.
And then there is Bihi, who concentrates his work in a square-mile area that residents refer to as "Little Mogadishu." It consists of five cinder-block apartment towers, four mosques, three community centers, several Somali restaurants and a Somali record store.
Most people are Sunni Muslims who immigrated here in the past 20 years after fleeing war, and they speak almost exclusively in Somali. Men gather each morning at Starbucks to argue about African clan politics. Women tuck cellphones under their hijabs to create impromptu headsets.
It is the epitome of what the FBI describes as a "vulnerable community." More than half of households are headed by single mothers, 70 percent of families live in poverty and almost 25 percent of adults are unemployed.
"There are a lot of people who are angry and hopeless," said Bihi, who came to the United States on a fake passport in the late 1980s to escape the country's chaos, spent five years as a rental-car jockey in Washington and then moved into one of the high-rise apartments in Minneapolis to be closer to relatives. He earned legal residency, obtained a green card and took a job interpreting for Somali patients at a hospital. In 1995, he returned to Africa to retrieve his sister and her toddler son from a refugee camp in Kenya and brought them home with him.
His nephew, Burhan Hassan, seemed to adjust well to life in the United States, mastering English, earning A's and B's at Minneapolis' Roosevelt High School and studying newspaper box scores to memorize the names of NFL teams. He joined a youth group at Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, started to dress in more traditional clothes and woke to pray in the middle of the night.
Bihi was ecstatic. Of all the ways an American teenager could go, he thought, this kid was moving closer to his faith.
On Nov. 4, 2008, an administrator phoned from Roosevelt High to say Hassan had ditched school. Bihi went to his nephew's apartment and found that his clothes and passport were missing. Hassan's laptop was still on the table, loaded with video sermons from radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, Bihi said.
Hassan called home a few days later to explain that he had traveled to Somalia with six friends to join al-Shabab. Don't worry, he said. He was killed in the fighting four months later.
The FBI launched an investigation into the missing teenagers, and 21 people have been indicted for allegedly assisting a terrorist organization — none of them officially attached to the mosque and most still thought to be at large in Somalia or Minnesota. None of the young men who disappeared have returned to their families.
While the FBI in Seattle has warned of al-Shabab recruiting among members of the city's large Somali community — second only to Minneapolis-St. Paul's — none of the indictments or charges were filed here.
One of those Seattle recruits — Omar Mohamud, a Somali American — reportedly drove a truck bomb into a peacekeepers base in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, in September 2009, killing 21 peacekeepers and himself.
In July 2009, a 25-year-old graduate of Roosevelt High School, Abdifatah Yusuf Isse, pleaded guilty in Minnesota to providing material support to al-Shabab. His lawyer said he had been recruited as a suicide bomber and underwent training in Somalia. Isse's mother, who lives in Seattle, told The Seattle Times at the time that he had been recruited in a mosque in Minneapolis.
In 2008, Ruben Shumpert, of Seattle, an African-American convert to Islam, reportedly was killed in a U.S.-supported rocket attack near Mogadishu after he fled to Somalia, in part, to avoid prison after pleading guilty to gun and counterfeiting charges. He reportedly was fighting for a group linked to al-Shabab and al-Qaida in Somalia, according to news reports and federal officials.
While here, Shumpert was associated with a now-closed Rainier Valley barber shop believed by federal agents to be a hotbed of radical Islamic teachings.
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