MINNEAPOLIS — His afternoon meeting was an urgent matter of national security, but Abdirizak Bihi needed to borrow $10 for the gas necessary to get there. The tank in his old truck had sat empty for days, forcing him to ride around town in a dress shirt and tie on a borrowed bicycle. Now he wanted to travel 10 miles, 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. 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, 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.
He wanted to offer his condolences to Beledi’s stepmother and encourage her to cooperate with the FBI. But he had also come with curiosities of his own. How had this happened? Or, more troubling: How was this happening again and again?
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 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 militant Islam. He earns no salary, and the undertaking has jeopardized his finances, his marriage and his reputation. He would happily quit tomorrow, he said, “if I believed there was anyone else crazy enough to do this.”
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 topic itself is so divisive. 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 nodded, squeezed her hand and told her to get some rest. He walked back to his car.
“There are no answers here, only more questions,” he said. “Sometimes this work feels hopeless, like trying to drain the ocean.”
He had heard from law enforcement officials that al-Shabab was strengthening its partnership with al-Qaida and expanding its ambitions to the West. Its shadowy network of recruiters was 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.”
Close to collapse
Bihi’s next morning began, like most of his mornings, with a series of momentous decisions that kept his life and his work from collapse. His wife, Shukri Yusuf, decided not to take their two young daughters and leave him — yet. The landlord, who supports his work, decided to give him one more day to pay $1,700 in overdue rent. He decided to press on with his counterterrorism work, despite the chaos it continues to create in his life.
Bihi’s voicemail inbox stores 38 messages, and it is always full. He had 15,000 unread e-mails, some from counterterrorism experts around the world and marked urgent. He works from 6 a.m. until midnight so his business hours overlap with allies in Canada and Somalia. Recently his wife had forced him to sign a contract requiring him to make money or continue sleeping on the couch.
“I’m tired of you being a charity worker, like Mr. FBI-slash-Mother Teresa,” she told him.
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 execution is much more complex.
Despite four congressional hearings and dozens of meetings involving the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the White House, 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.
The most coordinated effort has been a succession of warnings from high-ranking intelligence officials.
“Domestic radicalization appears to have become more pronounced,” said FBI Director Robert Mueller.
“The threat is real and rising,” said deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough.
“We are stumbling blindly,” concluded a report released by the 9/11 Commission in 2010.
And then there is Bihi, who said his only chance at success is “to do everything to build up every part of these kids’ lives.”
He 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,” Bihi said, making it an ideal setting for a radical recruiter.
Bihi 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-Aulaqi, 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.
“It is one of the most significant post-9/11 investigations that the FBI has undertaken, and it is definitely ongoing,” said FBI Special Agent E.K. Wilson, who supervises the counterterrorism squad in Minneapolis. “We were dealing with a community that is huge and has a high mistrust of the government.”
Bihi believed he could orchestrate a more effective response from within the community, so he started his program and experienced some initial success. Local elders donated money, and Bihi convened a monthly youth summit, started a local television show about al-Shabab recruitment and pushed the city to build an AstroTurf soccer field near the high-rises. Sometimes, when he had money to spare, he bought a dozen pizzas and distributed slices to teenagers, talking to them about Islam and al-Shabab. He called them “my guys.” They called him “uncle.”
Now, three years later — the $20,000 all gone, his personal savings depleted, his gas tank back on empty, his wife and daughters so fed up that they often tell him, matter-of-factly, “Give up. Burhan is dead” — Bihi’s workday began with an early-morning text message from one of those kids who had once called him “uncle.”
“Hey old head, why you lieing man?”
He had promised this teenager a ride across town and some pocket money, but he didn’t have any. He also didn’t have the $10,000 he had promised a local soccer coach for a tournament to celebrate Somali Week. Or the jerseys for the basketball team. Or the apartment for a convicted felon he believed was being recruited by al-Shabab. Or any answers for the grieving stepmother about her suicide-bomber son, Beledi.
Bihi had flown to Washington to testify before the House Committee on Homeland Security in March, hoping the trip might result in some money for his programs. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the committee chairman, heralded Bihi as a “real master of these issues.” But the congressman’s support wavered when their conversations turned to money.
“Funding community groups for counterterrorism is just too risky,” King said. “There’s a real danger of federal dollars ending up in the wrong hands.”
Bihi had no money left to distribute in the community. Al-Shabab recruiters, meanwhile, were giving plenty, according to findings from the ongoing FBI investigation. Cellphones. Meals. Shuttle rides to malls. Plane tickets to Africa worth $3,000 or more.
“This country spends so much money fighting terrorism,” Bihi said. “So where is it?”