A number of young Somali men in Minneapolis have gone missing in recent months, and some fear the youths are being recruited to return to their homeland to fight with terrorist groups.
One of the men who disappeared is believed to have killed himself in an Oct. 29 suicide bombing in northern Somalia, according to a U.S. law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the case. That official confirmed the FBI and Justice Department were investigating.
Another U.S. law enforcement official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said authorities are calling it one of the first instances in which a U.S. citizen has acted as a suicide bomber.
The Oct. 29 bombings included a series of five seemingly coordinated attacks in the breakaway republic of Somaliland and the Somalia's Puntland region. More than 20 people were killed.
"We're aware of the circumstances in Somalia right now and the events of the Oct. 29 bombings. And we are aware that a number of individuals from throughout the U.S. and Minneapolis have traveled to Somalia to potentially fight for terrorist groups," said Special Agent E.K. Wilson, an FBI spokesman.
Members of the Somali community in Minneapolis said small groups of young men have been disappearing over the last year. Anywhere from 15 to 20 have left Minneapolis in recent months, said Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center.
"We know for a fact this is happening, but we don't know who is doing it," he said.
Osman Ahmed, a Somali activist, said his 17-year-old nephew is among a group of at least seven people who went missing Nov. 4.
The Associated Press is honoring Ahmed's request to withhold the name of the teen for the youth's safety. Ahmed said the teen came to the U.S. as a young child and was an American citizen, like the others who left that day.
Ahmed said his nephew was a high school senior and had a normal routine of going to school, going home then going to the mosque.
"He was a very nice guy," Ahmed said. "He was very clever. Very shy. Very cool."
On Nov. 4, he told his mother a friend would pick him up from school, but he never came home.
"We started checking hospitals, we went to the police station," Ahmed said.
The family then realized that the teen's U.S. passport was missing, and Ahmed said authorities found a flight itinerary showing the teen arriving in Nairobi, Kenya, on Nov. 5.
Within two days, the teen called his mother, saying only that he was alive, safe and in Mogadishu, Somalia, Ahmed said. The teen gave no other details and has not been heard from since.
"We are praying to see him one day," Ahmed said.
Ahmed, who has been talking with other relatives of missing young men, said the families received similar phone calls.
Some members of the Somali community are concerned the young men are being recruited to go to Somalia and fight. The impoverished nation on the Horn of Africa is caught up in an Islamic insurgency and has not had a functioning government since 1991.
"It has to come to an end right now," said Jamal. "It has to stop. ... We have so many families grieving. We don't want any more kids to get brainwashed and programmed."
Jamal and Ahmed said it is suspicious because someone is providing money and transportation for the men to fly from Minnesota to Africa.
"My nephew, he doesn't have money for a ticket," said Ahmed. "None of these kids do."
Jamal said he hopes the situation isn't a black eye for the state's Somali community, which the U.S. Census numbered at more than 24,000 in 2006. Local activists claim the actual number is higher than that.
"We hope that this won't be an issue where the community will be looked at differently," Jamal said. "Somalis at large are very peaceful people. ... We don't want the Somali community to be looked at as a group of suicide bombers."