Amid an extremist fervor inspiring some young American Muslims to become warriors for jihad, two Minneapolis Somalis are waging their own personal jihad. They're hoping to win the hearts and minds of Somali teens being tempted to embrace a radical ideology that for many is only a keystroke or a YouTube clip away.
MINNEAPOLIS — She’s 19, a college sophomore and a product of the Twin Cities suburbs. He’s 45, a father of four with boyhood memories of swimming in the cool ocean waters off the beaches of Mogadishu.
Reserved and religious, she favors a long, billowing hijab and is known to many as “the mosque girl.” Outgoing and outspoken, he prefers jeans and sneakers and debating politics with friends at Starbucks.
In many ways, Fartun Ahmed and Abdirizak Bihi are worlds apart. But amid an extremist fervor expanding globally and inspiring some young Muslims to become warriors for jihad, the two Minneapolis Somalis share a common passion and purpose.
Most Read Nation & World Stories
Working at all hours, they are waging their own personal jihad, hoping to win the hearts and minds of Somali teens being tempted to embrace a radical ideology that for many is only a keystroke or a YouTube clip away.
“They want to steal our youth,” Bihi says.
For both, the task is urgent. Already, about 20 Somali-Americans from Minnesota have been recruited by the terrorist group al-Shabaab to go overseas. Five of them, including Bihi’s teenage nephew, have died while training and fighting in Somalia’s bloody civil war. One died while killing others in a suicide attack.
In the aftermath of recent terrorist incidents and arrests nationally, federal officials are worried that the reach of extremism and the potential for homegrown attacks on U.S. soil are increasing.
“The threat has really morphed,” says Ralph Boelter, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Minneapolis. “It’s morphed from being primarily an al-Qaida-centered threat to something that is really much, much more than that.”
Acting out the message
For Ahmed, a petite, bespectacled woman with a take-charge attitude, the battle unfolds quietly in and around dimly lit meeting rooms of the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque. It’s there, in the shadow of the towering Cedar-Riverside apartment complex near downtown Minneapolis, where she volunteers as youth director and strives to reinforce a peaceful interpretation of her faith.
One recent Sunday morning, Ahmed and more than 70 teenagers, parents and grandparents sat in the prayer hall watching three teenage boys perform a one-act play. Ahmed, a sophomore at Metro State University who has never seen her parents’ homeland of Somalia, wrote the script when she realized Somali-Americans from Minnesota were answering the call of jihad.
The play is short, but one theme is clear: Be wary of extremism.
Ahmed beamed as the young actors brought her characters to life.
“It’s like what al-Shabaab is doing right now,” Ahmed whispers during the action. “They’re just killing people for no reason.”
As the play ended, actor Abdirahman Hassan stepped to the podium.
“Our youth, some of them misunderstood Islam,” Hassan said. ” … We have to step up.”
As Ahmed works the mosque, Bihi hits the streets of Cedar-Riverside, home to the largest concentration of Somali immigrants in the country — at least 7,000.
There, in the bustling neighborhood dubbed “Little Mogadishu,” he’s laying the groundwork with Somali elders, merchants and others to find mentors and create opportunities for teenagers struggling to establish an identity in a new and often confusing land.
“The missing kids, I can’t get them back,” says Bihi, head of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center, a grass-roots group. “But what we can do is stop any more from going over there and dying.”
One recent day, Bihi stood before 16 boys who play for the Halgan United soccer team. “What is on your minds?” he asked.
They spoke of their passion for soccer and need to find practice fields. They spoke, too, of fears — of being harassed by thugs and gang members.
“After school, we are not feeling safe,” Mohamud Hussein, 16, said. “We need activities and a place to go instead of hanging out outside.”
Bihi promised to help. Then he shared two personal stories. The first was his.
He left Somalia for Egypt and later the United States when he was just 17. He was on his own in a strange and intimidating country. But he worked hard to build a life.
“I was like you,” he told the boys. “I see myself in you.”
The second story was about his nephew, Burhan, who left refugee camps in Kenya and came to Minnesota with his mother as a toddler.
Burhan was a mother’s dream: He excelled in school and steered clear of trouble. While some Somali boys roamed the streets, Burhan memorized the Quran and spent free time at the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center.
But one afternoon in November 2008, Burhan didn’t come home. In days, his distraught mother learned he was among local Somalis lured to the homeland by al-Shabaab.
Months later, Burhan was dead. His heartbroken family was told by friends in Somalia that the boy, disillusioned and homesick, was shot in the head after refusing an order. He was only 18.
“Don’t let anybody get into your mind with what they are doing,” Bihi tells the boys. “You are the best.”
Drive to fight
Nine months have passed since Burhan’s body was buried somewhere in Somalia. But his indoctrination and death still gnaw at his uncle, who traveled to Kenya in 1993 to bring his sister and the boy to the United States.
It’s also what drives him to fight back.
Over the months, Bihi, a wiry man who gets by on little sleep, has logged hundreds of hours at his dining-room table searching Somali Web sites on his laptop for clues that might provide answers.
The better he knows the enemy and their tactics, the better his chances of preventing other young Somalis from repeating Burhan’s mistake.
“I’m looking for their weaknesses,” he said of al-Shabaab.