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FBI seeking information about Minnesota residents who may have gone to fight in Syria

The FBI in Minneapolis said Tuesday it is investigating the possibility that some men have recently left Minnesota to join rebels fighting in Syria, and it is reaching out to the state's large Somali community to try to prevent others from making the trip.

FBI spokesman Kyle Loven said authorities have indications that some individuals have recently left Minnesota and traveled overseas. He did not elaborate or release an estimated number of people involved, citing the active investigation.

But he did say it's likely some travelers made their way to Syria, or are headed there, and the FBI has concerns they may have been induced into joining the fight against President Bashar Assad's government. He said the travelers or potential travelers are believed to be Somali.

"We're trying to figure out ... the impetus for young men traveling overseas. How is this happening?" Loven said. "This is relatively recent, and so we're still attempting to examine the entire situation."

The FBI posted a public plea for information on its website Tuesday, asking those who know anyone who is "planning to and/or has traveled to a foreign country for armed combat or who is being recruited for such activities," to contact the local office. The Minneapolis office is the only FBI office nationwide that posted the public request.

The move comes about a week after an American from Florida carried out a suicide bombing against Syrian government troops in the city of Idlib. Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha is believed to be the first U.S. citizen involved in a suicide bombing in Syria's three-year civil war.

Loven said authorities are reaching out to Somali community leaders and activists, in hopes of identifying at-risk youth.

Since late 2007, at least 22 young men have left Minnesota to join the terrorist group al-Shabab in Somalia. Some of the men died there, some remain at large and others were prosecuted for their role in what the FBI said was one of the largest efforts to recruit U.S. fighters to a foreign terrorist organization. That investigation is still active.

The executive director of the Somali-American group Ka Joog, which works to combat radicalism by providing youth with positive alternatives, said the relative of one possible traveler contacted him Saturday and said the young man had left Minnesota.

Mohamed Farah said the news is concerning, and reminiscent of what happened in late 2008 when the community began learning that young men were going to Somalia.

"I think this is a second round, but now it's to Syria, and it really shows we have a lot of work ahead of us," Farah said.

Somali community activist Abdirizak Bihi said local Somalis have been talking in recent days about the possibility that some men might have gone to Syria, and is worried that a radical element is trying to steer young men into a new pipeline of violence.

"We are very concerned about this summer," Bihi said. "People are shocked. ... It's insane."

Bihi said young Somali men in Minneapolis are vulnerable to terrorist recruiting because there are no jobs, few programs and they feel like outsiders. Farah said more needs to be done to keep youth engaged.

Early last month, FBI Director James Comey said dozens of Americans were among the growing number of foreign fighters who joined the Syrian conflict in recent months. Authorities have expressed concern these fighters could become radicalized by hard-line jihadists, and bring those influences back home.

The FBI is asking anyone with information about travels or potential travels to Syria to call (763) 569-8020.

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Online:

FBI: http://www.fbi.gov/minneapolis/

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Follow Amy Forliti on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/amyforliti

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