Mother, friends of accused shocked at allegations of efforts to join ISIS
MINNEAPOLIS—After fleeing war-torn Somalia and languishing for years in a Kenyan refugee camp, Farhiyo Mohamed says her family felt blessed to start a new life in the U.S. in 2003. “We came to this country looking for peace,” she said.
That sense of peace was shattered when federal agents banged on her door in south Minneapolis on Sunday following the arrest of her oldest child, Abdulrahman Daoud, in San Diego. Her 21-year-old son was allegedly en route to Syria to join Islamic State, or ISIS.
Mr. Daoud is now part of a federal case that involves six young men, one of the largest groups of would-be foreign fighters so far charged by U.S. authorities with conspiring to support a terrorist organization. Their arrests came amid intensified efforts to investigate terrorist recruitment that has heightened scrutiny of Somali-Americans.
Four of the young men are scheduled to appear in federal court in Minneapolis on Thursday while two others, including Mr. Daoud, are scheduled to appear in San Diego federal court Friday.
“I am shocked because my son is a good kid,” said Mrs. Mohamed, 40 years old, as she spoke with a reporter late Wednesday at a community center here frequented by Somali youth and women.
While she expressed disbelief and heartbreak over her son’s alleged intentions, some Somali-American youngsters who said they attended high school with Mr. Daoud voiced outrage, suggesting law enforcement had framed the six men to intimidate their community.
Mrs. Mohamed said that she and her husband, who works with elderly Americans at an adult center, had no inkling that her son might have been lured to Syria by extremists.
“I don’t believe my son was going” to join a terrorist group, she said, her round face framed by a purple hijab. “Maybe someone brainwashed him,” she said. “I don’t know.”
Mr. Daoud and Mohamed Abdihamid Farah had driven to California from Minneapolis together, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents said, aiming to travel to Mexico to then on to Syria. Four other men—Adnan Farah,Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman, Hanad Mustafe Musse and Guled Ali Omar—were arrested in Minneapolis.
Mrs. Mohamed said her son wasn’t planning to leave Minneapolis for good. He had a girlfriend who he had intended to marry soon, she said, and he had been apartment hunting.
Her son had been studying to be a dental technician at a local community college, she said. She explained that he recently had taken a break to work full time in order to earn money to pay back some loans before returning to complete his studies, she said.
His wages helped their family make ends meet, she said. Asked what work her son did, Mrs. Mohamed couldn’t answer specifically, saying only: “big company.”
In contrast to Mrs. Mohamed’s weary tone, defiance was the dominant sentiment among dozens of Somali high school and college students who gathered nearby at the community center, where they participate in activities such as sports and after-school tutoring. One after another, the young men said that Mr. Daoud and the other five men arrested were innocent.
“They are regular people who worked, went to school,” said Zack Yusuf, 19, among several who said he had attended high school with them. “You would see them around.” He said that he had played sports with the men and that they had never spoken about Islamic jihad or expressed extremist views. Law enforcement, one said, wanted to “trap” their friends.
The FBI in Minnesota says it is investigating “numerous individuals” who have attempted or successfully traveled to Syria to join Islamic State.
On the eve of Thursday’s detention hearing for the four Minneapolis suspects, several dozen young men and women were preparing posters they planned to hoist in their support at the courthouse.
“Free Our Brothers, Know Our Struggles. Stop the Tears of Our Mothers,” read one. Another said, “One Nation. One Religion. One Community. #WeAreNotAlone.”
More than 100,000 Somalis have come to the U.S. since the 1990s as refugees. The Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area is home to the largest Somali community, numbering about 75,000 immigrants and U.S.-born children, according to independent estimates.
Like other refugees, before Somalis are allowed to travel to the U.S., they undergo security checks that can take several years. On arrival, they are received by resettlement agencies hired by the State Department to help them find housing, learn English and secure jobs, among others.
“We see the U.S. as a country that gave us a second chance,” said Sadik Warfa, who heads the Global Somali Diaspora in Minneapolis, a nonprofit group.
However, experts familiar with such communities say, rifts can develop between U.S.-born or U.S-raised children and their parents, who often arrive with little education and have difficulty learning English and the ways of their new home.
Many youngsters are caught between their old and new worlds. The stress of making ends meet and lack of knowledge of the U.S. make it especially difficult for parents to keep a grip on their children, advocates say.
“The kids born here are more assertive,” said Mr. Warfa. “They want what John, Kate and other American kids have.”
Their frustration and feeling of alienation can compel them to find an identity and a sense of belonging in an extremist group, he said, much like some other disaffected youth join gangs.
A few years ago, some Minnesota Somalis were enticed to join Al Shabab, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia. Now, ISIS appears to have become a draw for some.
Mother of five children, ranging in age from 4 to 21, Mrs. Mohamed said that she had noticed her son’s recent absence and asked neighbors and friends whether they had seen him.
When agents showed up, they handcuffed her husband and 18-year-old son. Her family, including her elderly mother, had to stand outside while they searched the house, she said.
Before leaving, they gave her a number to call for information about her son. They were told he was “safe,” she said.
Asked if she believed her son loved the U.S., she responded: “Yes, he was happy here.”