Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Sudden notoriety: Mosque in Minneapolis draws scrutiny from U.S. Senate, FBI and international media

A news crew from Dubai arrived at the Abubakar As-Saddique Mosque as I was leaving on Tuesday. Al Jazeera, the Arabic news network, has booked an interview for next week, coming on the heels of reporters from dozens of other news organizations.

Abubakar As-Saddique Mosque
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
Abubakar As-Saddique Mosque in Minneapolis: A victim of the politics of war in East Africa?

A news crew from Dubai arrived at the Abubakar As-Saddique Mosque as I was leaving on Tuesday. Al Jazeera, the Arabic news network, has booked an interview for next week, coming on the heels of reporters from dozens of other news organizations.

The reporters were welcomed, but not the sudden notoriety that drew them to the Minneapolis mosque.

Some Somalis say the mosque invited scrutiny and suspicion by helping to radicalize young Somali men for jihad in their homeland. Others say the mosque is a wrongly accused victim of the politics of war in East Africa.

FBI investigators are saying nothing publicly about the accusations that have flown from the streets of Minneapolis to Capitol Hill and around the world.

After listening to the arguments all week, I don’t know what to say. So I’ll simply tell you what I heard.

On this much, everyone seems to agree: As many as 20 young Somali men have gone missing from Twin Cities homes during the past few months, some have called relatives to say they are in Somalia, one blew himself up in an apparent suicide bombing and the FBI is investigating alleged connections with Al-Shabaab, which the United States calls a terrorist organization.

The accusations
Osman Ahmed turned rumor into sworn testimony (PDF) at a U.S. Senate hearing this month when he accused Abubakar’s leaders of brainwashing the men and trying to scare their families from talking about their disappearance.

Ahmed’s nephew, Burhan Hassan, is one of the missing. The uncle was testifying on behalf of several families before the U. S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs.

“We have been painted as bad people within the Somali community by the mosque management. We have been threatened for just speaking out,” Ahmed said in prepared testimony.

“They tell parents that if they report their missing kid to the FBI, that FBI will send the parents to Guantanamo Jail,” he continued.  “Public threats were issued to us at Abu-Bakar Assidique for simply speaking with CNN and Newsweek.”

The response
I read Ahmed’s accusations to Omar Hurre, executive director of the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center which includes the mosque.

“Lies…very clear lies,” Hurre said.

Omar Hurre
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
Omar Hurre

He insisted leaders at the mosque never have preached radicalism or violence.

“The parents initially came to us when they missed their kids and asked us what was going on,” he said. “But we never told any parent that you need to report your son to the government or you do not need to report. We never directed any parent what to do about those missing kids, let alone tell them you will end up in Guantanamo.”

Why take such a neutral stance on a matter that urgent? He said that Abubaker has deliberately avoided incendiary Somali politics, especially since 2006 when U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia and fought Islamic groups for control.

Bitterly divided Somalis were “coming to the mosque and praying next to each other,” he said, so we decided to concentrate on religious issues.

U.S. authorities blocked the mosque’s imam, Sheik Abdirahman Ahmed, from traveling to Saudi Arabia in November for the spiritual pilgrimage known as the hajj.  Further, the FBI has questioned dozens of people who worship at the mosque, and some have been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury.

But no one from the mosque’s administration has been accused or even questioned by the FBI, Hurre said. Indeed, the mosque’s leaders sent a letter to the Senate committee complaining that they had not been given a chance to testify and defend themselves.

The FBI would not comment on the details of its ongoing investigation into the missing Somali men. But E.K. Wilson, special agent with the Minneapolis office, did say that the investigation is “not directed against … any particular mosque.”

Wilson said the FBI has been in contact with Abubakar’s leaders, though, as part of an effort to enhance its overall communication with the Somali community.

“We are planning to meet with them at their request just to establish a dialog and listen to what they have to say and listen to their concerns,” Wilson said.

Inside the mosque
The religious center that is the focus of so much intrigue is no architectural match for the mosques you find in the Middle East and North Africa. No majestic domes, no masterpiece tile mosaics.

A passerby easily could miss the modest sign identifying the brick industrial-style building as a mosque.

Still, Abubakar calls itself the largest mosque in Minnesota.

The mosque opened in 1998 in a rented storefront in Minneapolis’s Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, but outgrew that space and moved to the current building, former home to a roofing company, near Lake Street.

I walked in on Tuesday, set my shoes on a designated rack, and watched dozens of kids arriving for after-school activities. Nearly 200 men and women rushed in for evening prayer, many towing children from tots to teens.

Hurre sat down to talk with me in a wedding hall that was lavishly draped in white tulle and decorated with ornate sofas and chandeliers.

The mosque paid $1.7 million cash for the building and spent $500,000 setting up the wedding hall, prayer rooms and other renovations, he said. Now it has an $800,000 school under construction. With a staff of seven counting him, he said, it relies on “tons of volunteers.”

Hurre laughed at claims that the mosque sends money to Al-Shabaab.

“This money is collected from the community here, and it serves the community here,” he said. “It doesn’t go anywhere else.”

Omar Jamal, a leading critic of Abubakar, doesn’t believe that.

“They were basically doing fundraising for Islamists in Somalia,” said Jamal, who heads the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul.

Hurre estimates that 600 to 700 worshipers show up for Friday prayers, and many others come during the week for lectures, family counseling and other activities.

It was the vision of the founders to make the mosque a community hub as well as a place of worship. Abdirahman Ahmed, the imam, had taught for years in the Minneapolis Public Schools and also worked at Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul. He wanted to create a place where Somali immigrants could preserve their culture and values.

“He had a vision from the start that it would be more than a place to pray,” Hurre said.

But did it also become a place — intended or otherwise — to prepare warriors for jihad?

Lost trust
Osman Ahmed testified at the Senate hearing that his nephew had attended Abubakar mosque for 10 years as had some of the other missing Somalis.

“These kids have no perception of Somalia except the one that was formed in their mind by their teachers at the Abu-Bakar Center,” he said. “It is the dream of every Somali parent to have their children go to the mosque but none of them expected to have their children’s mind programmed in a manner that is in line with the extremists’ ideologies.”

One result of the men’s disappearance is that trust in mosques has been shattered, said Muhiyadin Aden, a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota who occasionally prayed at Abubakar.

“I am not accusing the mosque in any way of being responsible for recruiting these young men, but these kids had been going to the mosque… and their parents trusted the mosque with their kids so they wouldn’t join gangs,” he said. “Now there is a lot of suspicion in the Somali community, a lot of tension and anger and blame going on. . . It’s a mess.”

While Aden doesn’t blame Abubakar for indoctrinating anyone, he does say outsiders could have connected with the men at the mosque.

“It’s a place where everyone goes and prays,” he said.

To that extent, the mosque deserves some scrutiny, he said, and its leaders should be held accountable for what happened there if it happened.

“If 20 young men are missing that is a problem, and that is something that should be investigated,” he said.

Politics and clan
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said he is surprised the mosque has been targeted: “I’ve met with the leadership there. They talked a message of inclusion, a message of peace, a message of community uplift … how they want a better way for the young people in the community.”

Ellison said he suspects some of the accusations are “informed by inter-clan rivalry.”

Abdisalam Adam agrees.

“I see politics and clan playing a role in this,” said Adam, who directs Dar Al-Hijrah, another Minneapolis mosque and community center. “We as a community could have done a lot better to handle this conflict. It is not at all fair to put the Abubakar mosque under this kind of blame.”

As a reporter occasionally covering Somalis, I’ve seen the fiery politics, too.

You didn’t have to go to a mosque to hear the uproar in the Twin Cities after Ethiopian troops marched into Somalia in 2006.  I heard it in street rallies and in picket lines outside the office of then-senator Norm Coleman.

Coleman apparently heard it too. In April, 2007, he sent a letter to the State Department expressing concern over violence in Mogadishu that had driven more than 100,000 people from their homes to live “under trees with no food, water, or sanitary facilities.”

Coleman said in the letter that he heard “troubling reports of human rights violations by the Ethiopian troops in Somalia.”

Here’s a far too simple backgrounder: After decades of inter-clan violence and anarchy in Somalia, a U.S.-backed Transitional Federal Government formed and tried to take charge in 2006. It met intense resistance from a coalition of Islamic groups. Ethiopian troops surged in to back the Transitional Government. (Ethiopian troops began withdrawing this year, but that’s a footnote to this story.)

After the Ethiopian invasion, “violent extremist Islamist elements” gained ground in Somalia, Philip Mudd, a director in the FBI’s National Security Branch, testified at the Senate hearing (PDF).

One such group was al-Shabaab, which U.S. authorities link to Al Qaeda.

Since late 2006, many men, with and without ethnic ties to Somalia, have left the United States to fight on al-Shabaab’s behalf, he said, and their primary motive “was to defend their place of birth from the Ethiopian invasion.”

Both sides in Minnesota
The conflict was not at all one-sided in Minnesota, and that’s where clan rivalry comes in.

Minnesota is home to close relatives of the leaders of the Transitional Government and many sympathetic Ethiopians, too. On the other hand, Minnesota also became a stage for heated opposition to Ethiopian boots on Somali soil.

Where some Somalis saw a need to save their homeland, others saw traitors. They took revenge where they could, and they continue to do so.

Meanwhile, stories of alleged human rights violations in Somalia were rampant in the Twin Cities, said Aden, who was at the University of Minnesota at the time.

“We heard reports of Ethiopian Christians raping young Muslim women and spreading HIV,” he said. “The message we got was that this was a plan for Ethiopia to take over all of Somalia. It angered a lot of Somali people… I do not believe these young guys who are missing right now thought they were joining terrorists. I believe they have been indoctrinated and told they were saving their country from Ethiopia, from forced Christianity.”

Cell phones, the Internet and blame
That may explain motive, but it still leaves the question of how the men were recruited.

Ellison looks to the globally ubiquitous cell phone.

“I don’t want to foreclose any possibility because I just don’t know,” he said. “But it might make sense to consider that you can call Somalia on a cell phone and you can get very clear reception. … These Somali kids might be lured back by friends or relatives.”

Other Somalis suspect the Internet.

Until a culprit is identified, it is understandable why distraught parents of the missing men look for explanations and lash out against the mosque, said Cawo Abdi, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota.

But until authorities charge someone, she said, “there is no proof whatsoever to lay the blame anywhere in the community, and the best course is to let investigators do their job.”

Even more destructive than speculation over the mosque, she said, is the assumption that all of the men have joined terrorists. Beyond the one man identified as a suicide bomber, authorities have said very little about the activities of the others.

“We may be giving a bigger black mark than the men deserve,” Abdi said. “We have very little factual information to make some of these dangerous claims.”

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.