The FBI is expanding contacts with Somali immigrant communities in the U.S., especially in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, fearing that terrorists are recruiting young men for suicide missions in their homeland.
FBI Special Agent E.K. Wilson, spokesman for the Twin Cities FBI field office, described the effort as community outreach. Many members of the Somali community are concerned over disappearances, he said.
Officials would not provide the exact number of missing, but about 20 men in their late teens and early 20s have disappeared in recent months and are thought to have joined Islamist rebels who are on the verge of overthrowing the U.S.- and U.N.-backed government in Somalia.
Most were from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, the site of the largest concentration of ethnic Somalis in the U.S., but other Somali communities have had young men go missing as well.
The FBI assisted in returning the remains of one Somali man, Shirwa Ahmed, a naturalized U.S. citizen killed Oct. 29 in a suicide bombing in northern Somalia.
The FBI would not say whether Mr. Ahmed was a bomber or victim in the attack, in which five terrorists killed themselves and 29 others.
In another incident, U.S. officials confirmed that a missile strike in Somalia had killed a Seattle man suspected of being an Islamist radical working with an al Qaeda-affiliated group.
Ruben Shumpert, a Muslim convert who changed his name to Amir Abdul Muhaimin, had been wanted on federal gun charges. He was killed in Somalia sometime before Oct. 1, said U.S. officials who described the strike as part of anti-terrorist military operations carried out in recent months.
“The FBI is aware of the issue,” said Richard Kolko, an FBI spokesman in Washington. “We know many in the Somali community are concerned about it.”
Mr. Kolko declined further comment.
Ahmed Elmi, chairman of the Washington-based Somali-American Community Association (SACA), said he knew of no one in the Washington area’s relatively tiny Somali community who had disappeared or of any recruitment here of would-be Islamist fighters.
“I want to have my antennae out,” Mr. Elmi said. “If there is a practice like that, I need to know.”
He said about 10,000 Somalis live in the Washington area, spread out over Maryland, Virginia and the District, among the estimated 200,000 nationwide.
SACA and other Somali groups in the U.S. have regular contacts with the Department of Homeland Security and the director of national intelligence going back two years, Mr. Elmi said.
Earlier this month, Mr. Elmi said, he participated in a conference call with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Homeland Security that included a half-dozen Somali community leaders from throughout the U.S.
Mr. Elmi helps run a school every Saturday for more than 30 Somali-American children at the community center in Takoma Park. All were born in the U.S. and attend the local elementary school during the week.
Saturday, one group of boys and girls sat cutting and pasting pictures from a supermarket advertisement as part of a lesson on nutrition.
Asha, age 8, who like other girls in the classroom wore a loose-fitting pastel head scarf, had pasted images of cherries, celery and carrots on a paper plate.
“Cakes and pies are bad, because they have sugar,” she explained. “I can have them after dinner for dessert.”
The school has its own fingerprinting kit and sends the prints of everyone who volunteers to the FBI.
One group of volunteers that serves as the school’s board urged the FBI and other agencies to publicize their contacts with Muslims in the U.S.
“The FBI, the whole homeland security structure, needs to explain what they know and what they’ve found out, to separate rumors from facts,” said Munin Barre, an insurance-claims specialist who serves on the school’s board.
“It’s important to know that they can contact us anytime,” added Khalif Hired, who works with the D.C. Department of Transportation.
A third volunteer, Yusuf Aden, who also works for the D.C. government, explained that the group’s biggest concern is preventing Somali youth from joining gangs, committing crimes and winding up in jail.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said authorities were looking at terrorist recruitment.
“We are taking this very seriously,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity owing to the sensitivity of the subject and ongoing operations.
On Nov. 4, a group of Somali teens and young adults fled the Twin Cities. According to law enforcement officials, the young men included Mohamoud Hassan, 18; Abdisalam Ali, 19; and Burhan Hassan, 17.
“We’re aware, and we’re acknowledging that they left,” the FBI’s Mr. Wilson told The Washington Times. “We’re reaching out to leaders, family members and the community as a whole.”
A second U.S. intelligence official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the young Somali men are suspected to have fled to Somalia, where they are training in making weapons and bombs at terrorist camps.
“This is not just happening in Minneapolis, but we’ve seen it across the country,” the official said.
A European intelligence official said young Somali men are lured into either criminal behavior or extremism at an early age.
“Some of these young men have been raised in such horror that it is only natural for them to seek refuge in it,” he said. “What is happening in the United States and Europe as far as recruitment is something we must be mindful of, and certainly, if we don’t try to stay ahead of it, it will come back to haunt us.”
Zoltan Grossman, a scholar who specializes in inter-ethnic conflicts, said that in terms of history, the recent departure of some Somali men to their homeland to fight in a civil war should not necessarily raise suspicion.
Mr. Grossman, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., said that during the Balkan war many young Albanian- and Croatian-Americans returned to their homeland to fight.
“For the Somalian people, there is a great tie to their homeland and a deep interest in war and peace,” said Mr. Grossman, who has done extensive research on the Somali community in Minnesota.
He added that “war in Somalia isn’t necessarily based on radical Islam,” adding that there is a “real danger in identifying the Somali community with terrorism.”
• Willis Witter and Bill Gertz contributed to this report.