This week officials are gathering in Washington to discuss how to counter extremist messages, particularly those from the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
ISIS has been luring thousands of Westerners to the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. The number of Americans who have traveled to Syria is still relatively small — in the neighborhood of 150 people — and a thin slice of that group, perhaps as many as two dozen Americans, are thought to have joined ISIS.
In the discussions at the White House this week, one city has focused minds: Minneapolis-St Paul. It had been ground zero for terrorist recruiters in the past, and is fast becoming the center of ISIS' recruitment effort in the United States.
"I know one guy who tweets the community all the time," said Abdirizak Bihi, the director of Somali education at a local advocacy group. "He left with my nephew 2008, and he's still alive. And he's been tweeting about who died in ISIS and where they come from, kind of maybe the new spokesman."
From Americans To Jihadists To Evangelists
Bihi's nephew was a Minneapolis teenager named Burhan Hassan, who joined a handful of young men from the Twin Cities and traveled to Somalia to join a terrorist group there called al-Shabab. Hassan died there several years ago. Between 2006 and 2011, some 27 Somali-Americans from the community disappeared to fight in Somalia.
That's important to what's going on now because officials believe that prior connection to jihad is one reason why ISIS has been so successful at recruiting in Minnesota today.
Since the end of 2013, law enforcement officials say, eleven men and one woman with ties to the Twin Cities have traveled to Syria. Another dozen or so either have tried to travel there before authorities intercepted them, or are believed to be preparing to go. What's more, officials say, the ISIS travelers are young: 15 and 16-year-olds are signing up.
Parents in the community are frightened. They have experienced this before, and there is a sinking feeling among parents that they'll be losing their children again.
"They are more afraid now than ever before because ISIS is something worse than anything we have ever seen," said Bihi.
Officials believe ISIS is taking advantage of the recruiting infrastructure al-Shabab developed almost a decade ago.
Back then, the departures came three or four friends at a time. They would suddenly vanish. Eventually parents would get text messages from their sons saying they had gone to Somalia to fight in the civil war.
Bihi's nephew, Burhan Hassan, left with a handful of other young men on election night 2008. Bihi and Hassan's mother thought he hadn't come home because he was out celebrating the election of America's first black president; instead he was boarding a plane to Africa.
Authorities never captured a mastermind in those al-Shabab cases. Instead, they managed to arrest someone they believed was a midlevel player — a local janitor who had connections to al-Shabab. He was convicted of, among other things, helping recruit the young men and financing their trips.
In the latest recruitment cases, law enforcement officials believe that a page has been torn from al-Shabab's playbook, and that there is someone — or a group of people — on the ground in Minnesota recruiting for ISIS.
Bihi says nothing else makes sense.
"I do not believe that a kid gets up in the morning — a normal kid — and decides not to go to school, but decides to open a Google and Google al-Shabab or ISIS, and to self-radicalize," he said. "There has to be someone helping them on the ground. These kids don't know how to make plans to travel, they don't have money, but somehow they are managing to leave anyway. Someone must be helping them."
A Teen Tries To Make The Trip
One morning in May 2014, an 18-year-old Somali-American named Abdullahi Yusuf had his dad drop him off at school, but never made it to class. He waited until the car was out of sight, then walked to a mosque that was just two short blocks up the street.
What Yusuf didn't know was that the FBI was watching him. They had staked out the school because they were convinced that Yusuf intended to board a flight to Turkey that afternoon. They had been tipped off because he had gone to the Minneapolis passport office days earlier and a passport officer got suspicious.
According to the criminal complaint, Yusuf told the passport officer where he was going. The officer asked if Yusuf was traveling with someone, and the question seemed to flummox him.
First he said he was going alone; then he said his mom couldn't afford to go. He changed his story a third time and added that he hoped to join up with a friend he'd just met on Facebook.
"A girl?" the officer asked. No, Yusuf allegedly said, a guy.
Days later, the FBI says, Yusuf opened a bank account and made a series of small deposits totalling $1500. Then he bought a plane ticket to Turkey. It took Abdullahi Yusuf just a couple of weeks to get everything he needed to leave home.
Jean Brandl, one of Yusuf's attorneys, said he was eventually charged with material support. The complaint says he intended to go to Syria and join up with ISIS.
'Of Course It Is Heartbreaking'
One of the wrenching themes to come out of this week's conference on countering violent extremism conference just how difficult recruiting and radicalization is for the families.
I met Abdullahi Yusuf's parents in Brandl's law offices last week. Sidik Yusuf is tall and thin. He's a driver in the Twin Cities. His wife Sarah wears a hijab and twists a tissue while she talks. They seemed shocked at finding themselves in law offices talking about a son who was arrested on terrorism charges. He had never been in trouble before.
"Abdullahi is my son," Sidik Yusuf says. "Now is 18 years and a half almost started 18. He come to this country when he was three years old and finished his education until the 12th grade."
He talked about how good Abdullahi was at math, how he played football on the high school team. How worried he became when his tall, skinny son was tackled.
"He doesn't have much muscles," he explained.
Sidik Yusuf didn't want to talk directly about his son's case, but said his family wasn't the only family dealing with young men stolen by ISIS.
"I think any parent can understand — who have a child or raised a child — knows what's the value of the children," Sidik Yusuf said. "Of course it is heartbreaking. That's the thing anybody can understand."
Six people from the Twin Cities, including Sidik Yusuf's son, have been charged in the ongoing ISIS investigation so far, with more to come: Local officials expect another three to five arrests in the next few weeks.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Officials say about 150 Americans have traveled to Syria during that country's civil war. Of those, only about two dozen have joined ISIS. This week, the White House is holding a conference to figure out how to stop people from joining groups like ISIS. One city that's getting a lot of attention at the conference is Minneapolis. That's because Somali Americans there were targeted by terrorist recruiters in the past, and now it's happening again. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports from Minneapolis.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Kids are running up and down the halls at the Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis. That's where Abdi Rizak Bihi has an office. He's in charge of Somali education with a local advocacy group and has become an unintentional expert on radicalization and terrorist recruitment. That's because his nephew, Burhan Hassan, left Minneapolis in 2008 and joined a terrorist group called al-Shabab.
ABDI RIZAK BIHI: After our kids left, we looked back. And one of the things three - four months prior to their departure - kids totally get disconnected from their friends, from their activities, from everything they were doing.
TEMPLE-RASTON: His nephew was one of 27 Somali Americans from this community who ended up in Somalia. He died there several years ago, and officials believe some of the young men who years ago went to Somalia to fight are contacting their friends and relatives in Minnesota and encouraging them to join ISIS.
BIHI: I know one guy who tweets the community all the time. Yes.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Who is where - in Somalia?
BIHI: Yes. He left with my nephew in 2008, and he's still alive, and he's been tweeting about who died in ISIS and where they came from - kind of maybe the new spokesman.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Since the end of 2013, law enforcement officials say, 11 men and one woman with ties to the Twin Cities have traveled to Syria. Another dozen or so have either tried to get there and were stopped or are believed to be preparing to go. What's more, officials say, the ISIS travelers are young - 15 and 16-year-olds are signing up. Bihi says that's scared the community.
BIHI: They are more afraid now than ever before because ISIS is something worse than anything we have ever seen with al-Shabab or any other Al-Qaida.
TEMPLE-RASTON: ISIS is taking advantage of the infrastructure another terrorist organization built in the Twin Cities almost a decade ago. Back then, in the first al-Shabab cases, three or four friends would suddenly go missing. Eventually, parents would get text messages from their sons saying they had gone to Somalia to fight in the civil war there. Authorities never captured a mastermind, but they did arrest a janitor who had connections to al-Shabab, and he was convicted, among other things, of helping recruit the young men and financing their trips. Law enforcement officials believe there is someone or a group of people on the ground in Minnesota recruiting for ISIS. Bihi, for his part, says nothing else makes sense.
BIHI: I do not believe that a kid gets up in the morning - a normal kid - and decides not to go to school but decides to open Google and Google al-Shabab or ISIS and to self radicalize. No.
TEMPLE-RASTON: But one morning last spring, a young Somali American 18-year-old, Abdullahi Yusuf, didn't show up for class. The events that change Abdullahi Yusuf's as he knows it began where I'm standing right now, outside the Heritage Academy in Minneapolis. This is where his father dropped him off for school last May. The high schooler watched until his dad's car was out of sight, and then he walked up the street just two short blocks to a nearby mosque. What Yusuf didn't know was that the FBI was watching him and intended to intercept him at the airport where he planned to board a flight, they allege, to join ISIS.
JEAN BRANDL: He's accused of providing material support to a terrorist organization.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Jean Brandl is one of Yusuf's attorneys.
BRANDL: And the government is alleging that he was going to Syria to provide material support, meaning his body, to ISIS.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI staked out Yusuf's school because they had a pretty good idea he planned to get on a plane that day. They'd been tipped off because he'd gone to the Minneapolis passport office, and the passport officer got suspicious.
BRANDL: There were many reasons given that the passport officer felt like it wasn't a legitimate trip to Turkey, and so notified the authorities, is the way I understand it.
TEMPLE-RASTON: According to the criminal complaint, the passport office asked who Yusuf was going to Turkey with. First he said he was going alone. Then he said his mom couldn't afford to go. Then he said he hoped to join up with a friend he'd just met on Facebook. Days later, the FBI says, Yusuf opened a bank account and made a series of small deposits totaling $1,500. Then he bought a plane ticket to Turkey. Abdullahi Yusuf had everything he needed to leave his home. I went to see his parents. His lawyer introduced us.
BRANDL: So Sidik, this is Dina.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Hi, Sidik. Nice to meet you.
SIDIK YUSUF: Hi. Nice to meet you too.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Thank you for coming. It's very sweet of you.
YUSUF: You're welcome.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Hi, Sarah. I'm Dina. Nice to meet you.
Sidik Yusuf is tall and thin. He's a driver in the Twin Cities. His wife Sarah wears a hijab and twists a tissue when she talks. They seem shocked that this has happened. Their son has never been in trouble before. They both understand English and speak it, but they want to talk to me through an interpreter.
YUSUF: (Through interpreter) Abdullahi is my son. Now he's 18 years and half. He come to this country when he was three years old. He finish his education until the 12th grade.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Sidik Yusuf didn't want to talk directly about his son's case, but he said others in the Somali community were going through the same thing - families losing their children to strangers.
YUSUF: (Through interpreter) Any parent can understand who have a child or raise the child knows what's the value of the children - that's the things anybody can understand.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Sidik Yusuf's son is one of six people from the Twin Cities who have been charged as part of the ongoing ISIS investigation. Local officials expect another three to five arrests in the next few weeks. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.