Tall and lean, with a wispy mustache and shy smile, 17-year-old Burhan Hassan chalked up A’s last fall as a senior at Roosevelt High School, vowing to become a doctor or lawyer.
After school and on weekends, he studied Islam at the nearby Abubakar As-Saddique mosque. He joined its youth group.
“He wanted to go to Harvard,” said his uncle Osman Ahmed. “That was his dream.”
Instead Hassan has gone to Somalia, the anarchic East African nation that his family fled when he was a toddler. On election day, Hassan and five other youths slipped away from their homes here, and anguished family members now say they may have joined a Taliban-style Islamic militia that U.S. authorities call a terrorist organization.
The youths, who have U.S. passports, followed a well-trod trail from Minneapolis to Mogadishu. Another group took off in August. The FBI believes that over the last two years, 12 to 20 Minnesotans have gone to Somalia.
As a result, a joint terrorism task force led by the FBI is scrambling to determine if extremist Islamic groups are seeking recruits here in the nation’s largest Somali community–as well as in San Diego, Seattle, Boston and other cities.
It might seem odd to seek a restorative cure in a country that has been mired in war for 18 years and now is known for its pirates. But many Somalis in Minneapolis retain strong political and social ties to the intrigues and battles in their homeland.
“They each support a particular warlord back in Somalia,” Omar Jamal, head of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, explained as he puffed on a huge hookah at the crowded Pyramids Cafe and Shisha Lounge.
Somali refugees began flocking to America in the early 1990s when their homeland erupted in famine and civil war–a chaotic bloodletting portrayed in Hollywood’s “Black Hawk Down.”
Like Hmong refugees before them, many Somalis moved to Minnesota for good schools, community aid and unskilled jobs in meat-processing plants and factories. A thriving Somali community, estimated at 60,000, has taken root in the state.
The largest group lives in and around a bleak cluster of high-rise apartments beside a busy highway in eastern Minneapolis, an area known as Little Mogadishu.
Women in thick shawls scurry down the icy streets as men in skullcaps pray in storefront mosques and cluster at a local Starbucks. Jobs are scarce and school dropout rates are high. According to police, gangs with names like Somali Mafia and Murda Squad killed seven people last year.
Saeed Fahia, a community activist and local historian, said many youths struggle with alienation in the cultural cross-fire of Somali tradition and American freedom.