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Muslim activist in Minnesota struggles as one-man counter against lure of terrorism

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This is the second story in a Post series, “Under Suspicion,” that examines the lives of American Muslims in the decade since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

MINNEAPOLIS — His afternoon meeting was an urgent matter of national security, but Abdirizak Bihi needed to borrow $10 for the gas necessary to get there. The tank in his old truck had sat empty for days, forcing him to ride around town in a dress shirt and tie on a borrowed girls bicycle with purple handlebars. Now he wanted to travel 10 miles down the freeway, and he wanted to move fast.

He walked out of his high-rise apartment building and stopped a friend on the sidewalk to plead for a loan. “I promise it’s for a good cause,” he said, and the friend handed over a few bills. Then Bihi drove off to investigate his community’s latest homegrown terrorist.

During the previous few days, Bihi, 46, had pieced together some clues that were equal parts surreal and familiar: Farah Mohamed Beledi, 27, had been a Minnesota kid with American problems who ditched classes in high school, joined a gang and answered to the nickname “Bloody.” He had gone to prison for stabbing someone at a soccer game and had come out two years later as a radicalized Muslim, spreading stories about the “United Snakes of America” and meeting other men at a Minneapolis mall to talk about jihad.

He disappeared to Somalia and joined al-Shabab, an Islamist extremist group with ties to al-Qaeda and aspirations of attacking the United States.

A terrorist Web site released an audio recording early this year with hints of Beledi’s Midwestern accent: “I would like to talk to my brothers and sisters out there in the West, or wherever you are: Brothers, come. Come to jihad. Die like lions.”

Then, in late May, a suicide bomber killed himself and three others in Mogadishu. Photos of the crime scene showed Beledi slumped facedown in the dirt, his military fatigues blown to pieces, his jacket still outfitted with the bomb’s trigger.

One week had passed since the deadly attack, and now Bihi was driving to meet with Beledi’s stepmother at her apartment in nearby St. Paul. Bihi is the founder, director and sole employee of a community-based counterterrorism program, and he has spent much of the past three years going to meetings just like this. The FBI and the Justice Department had come to rely on his help during investigations; he had been a star witness at a congressional hearing in March about radicalization among American Muslims. But as spring turned to summer, Bihi wondered whether the problem had grown too big for him.

“More kids become terrorists, more families are broken, and nothing ever changes,” he said.

He wanted to offer his condolences to Beledi’s stepmother and encourage her to cooperate with the FBI. But he had also come with curiosities of his own. How had this happened? Or, more troubling: How was this happening again and again?

There have been 51 homegrown jihadist plots or attacks in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, according to law enforcement reports, and their frequency is increasing. Nowhere else is the problem of radicalization so concentrated as in Bihi’s section of downtown Minneapolis, where about 10,000 Somali immigrants live in a collection of faded apartment towers bordering the freeway. At least 25 young men have disappeared from here to fight for al-Shabab in the past three years, and dozens more are being investigated on suspicion of recruiting or fundraising on behalf of the terrorist organization. None so far have tried to attack in the United States, but intelligence gathered by law enforcement suggests that they will.

One of the first Americans to vanish from this city was Bihi’s nephew, a 17-year-old honors student who joined al-Shabab in 2008 and was killed the next year. Bihi, a former interpreter for local hospitals, responded by launching a youth advocacy program to combat militant Islam. He earns no salary, and the undertaking has jeopardized his finances, his marriage and his reputation. He would happily quit tomorrow, he said, “if I believed there was anyone else crazy enough to do this.”

Many mosques, elected officials and even law enforcement agencies have hesitated to address the radicalization of a small percentage of U.S. Muslims, because the topic itself is so divisive. The focus on homegrown jihad is considered either the next front in the war on terrorism or an Islamophobic witch hunt sure to create more ill will.

In his neighborhood of Minneapolis, Bihi is known either as “Super Somali,” for his frenetic efforts to fight al-Shabab, or as “ma’angag,” a Somali word that means obstinate, because some believe his relationship with law enforcement amounts to a betrayal of the Somali American community. One local mosque barred him from services; another invited him to join its leadership committee.

Bihi describes himself as an observant Muslim who prays daily and fasts during Ramadan. He said it is his responsibility to “save the religion I love from a very small number of extremists.”

On that sweltering afternoon in early June, he parked his car in front of the stepmother’s apartment in St. Paul, unsure whether to expect cooperation or resistance. He had spoken with Beledi a few times in 2008 before the young man showed signs of joining al-Shabab, but Bihi had never met his stepmother.

He walked to the end of a long hallway and entered a stuffy, one-bedroom apartment. The shades were drawn. The room smelled of cumin. Mumina Roba sat with her feet propped on a coffee table and fanned herself with a newspaper. Bihi knelt down by her side. They spoke for the next 10 minutes in rapid Somali.

Roba said she had come to Minnesota in 1996 with Beledi, then 12. She had taken care of the boy since his father’s death in Somalia’s civil war. Beledi had been a good kid, then a troublemaker, then a criminal. She lost touch with him when he was in prison, but relatives told her he had joined Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, Minnesota’s largest mosque, and then moved to Kenya.

She heard nothing more until the FBI knocked on her door with bloody pictures of Beledi from across the world. Her asthma and arthritis were acting up. Her face had swelled from so much crying. She was tired, but mostly confused. Who had turned her stepson into a terrorist? How had he ended up in Somalia? What could she have done to stop it?

“I don’t understand,” she said.

Bihi nodded, squeezed her hand and told her to get some rest. He walked back to his car.

“There are no answers here, only more questions,” he said. “Sometimes this work feels hopeless, like trying to drain the ocean.”

He had heard from law enforcement officials that al-Shabab was strengthening its partnership with al-Qaeda and expanding its ambitions to the West. Its shadowy network of recruiters was gaining momentum in Minnesota and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Bihi had fewer resources than ever, with no money to run his programs and a shrinking support base within the community. The lackluster economy meant that most local Somali American teenagers were unemployed for the summer, leaving them frustrated and bored. Bihi guesses that as many as 25 more will fall prey to al-Shabab recruiters before school begins this fall.

“Unless we figure out a way to stop this soon,” he said, “we are headed for disaster.”

Bihi’s next morning began, like most of his mornings, with a series of momentous decisions that kept his life and his work from collapse. His wife, Shukri Yusuf, decided not to take their two young daughters and leave him — yet. The landlord, who supports his work, decided to give him one more day to pay $1,700 in overdue rent. He decided to press on with his counterterrorism work, despite the chaos it continues to create in his life.

Bihi’s voice-mail inbox stores 38 messages, and it is always full. He had 15,000 unread e-mails, some from counterterrorism experts around the world and marked urgent. He works from 6 a.m. until midnight so his business hours overlap with allies in Canada and Somalia. On most days, he smokes two packs of cigarettes and forgets to eat breakfast, so now his size-small dress shirts drape off his shoulders like garbage bags. He had burned through $20,000 in donations and $10,000 in savings to pay for his community program while his family scraped by on his wife’s salary as a teacher’s aide. Recently his wife had forced him to sign a contract requiring him to make money or continue sleeping on the couch.

“I’m tired of you being a charity worker, like Mr. FBI-slash-Mother Teresa,” she told him.

Officially, Bihi is the director of the Somali Education and Special Advocacy Center, but in truth he is the center, aided only by a Samsung cellphone and a donated desk in the offices of Mo’s Building Maintenance. His program is part of an emerging movement that Washington officials refer to as “CVE,” or “countering violent extremism.” The idea is simple: Inoculate young Muslims against the risks of radicalization by making them feel entrenched and happy in their communities. The execution is much more complex.

Despite four congressional hearings and dozens of meetings involving the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the White House, the U.S. government has yet to reach a consensus on how, exactly, counter-radicalization should work. Some Democrats argue that focusing on Muslim extremism alone is discriminatory. Some Republicans argue that the country’s security leaves no room for political correctness. And many officials on both sides are wary of funding community-run counter-radicalization programs, for fear of accidentally partnering with extremists.

Other countries have forged ahead: Saudi Arabia funds a team of Islamic scholars who roam online message boards to argue against extremist rhetoric. Germany hosts an annual retreat for Muslim leaders. Britain distributes $100 million in government money to community-based preventive programs.

In the United States, the most coordinated effort has been a succession of warnings from high-ranking intelligence officials.

“Domestic radicalization appears to have become more pronounced,” said FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.

“The threat is real and rising,” said deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough.

“We are stumbling blindly,” concluded a report released by the 9/11 Commission in 2010.

The few programs that exist are untested and disparate. There is Mohamed Elibiary, a self-described “master of the last-ditch save” from Texas who helps law enforcement agencies de-radicalize known extremists. There is Imad Hamad, who runs a monthly program in Dearborn, Mich., that brings together imams and FBI agents. There is the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which sponsors trips for teenagers to Hollywood so they can learn about a quintessentially American place often demonized by Islamist groups.

And then there is Bihi, who said his only chance at success is “to do everything to build up every part of these kids’ lives.”

He concentrates his work in a square-mile area that residents refer to as “Little Mogadishu.” It consists of five cinder-block apartment towers, four mosques, three community centers, several Somali restaurants and a Somali record store. Most people are Sunni Muslims who immigrated here in the past 20 years after fleeing war, and they speak almost exclusively in Somali. Men gather each morning at Starbucks to argue about African clan politics. Women tuck cellphones under their hijabs to create impromptu headsets.

It is the epitome of what the FBI describes as a “vulnerable community.” More than half of households are headed by single mothers, 70 percent of families live in poverty and almost 25 percent of adults are unemployed.

“There are a lot of people who are angry and hopeless,” Bihi said, making it an ideal setting for a radical recruiter.

Bihi came to the United States on a fake passport in the late 1980s to escape the country’s chaos, spent five years as a rental-car jockey in Washington and then moved into one of the high-rise apartments in Minneapolis to be closer to relatives. He earned legal residency, obtained a green card and took a job interpreting for Somali patients at a hospital. In 1995, he returned to Africa to retrieve his sister and her toddler son from a refugee camp in Kenya and brought them home with him.

His nephew, Burhan Hassan, seemed to adjust well to life in the United States, mastering English, earning A’s and B’s at Minneapolis’s Roosevelt High School and studying newspaper box scores to memorize the names of NFL teams. He joined a youth group at Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, started to dress in more traditional clothes and woke to pray in the middle of the night.

Bihi was ecstatic. Of all the ways an American teenager could go, he thought, this kid was moving closer to his faith.

On Nov. 4, 2008, an administrator phoned from Roosevelt High to say Hassan had ditched school. Bihi went to his nephew’s apartment and found that his clothes and passport were missing. Hassan’s laptop was still on the table, loaded with video sermons from radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, Bihi said.

Hassan called home a few days later to explain that he had traveled to Somalia with six friends to join al-Shabab. Don’t worry, he said. He was killed in the fighting four months later.

The FBI launched an investigation into the missing teenagers, and 21 people have been indicted for allegedly assisting a terrorist organization — none of them officially attached to the mosque and most still thought to be at large in Somalia or Minnesota. None of the young men who disappeared have returned to their families.

“It is one of the most significant post-9/11 investigations that the FBI has undertaken, and it is definitely ongoing,” said FBI Special Agent E.K. Wilson, who supervises the counterterrorism squad in Minneapolis. “We were dealing with a community that is huge and has a high mistrust of the government.”

Bihi believed he could orchestrate a more effective response from within the community, so he started his program and experienced some initial success. Local elders donated money, and Bihi convened a monthly youth summit, started a local television show about al-Shabab recruitment and pushed the city to build an AstroTurf soccer field near the high-rises. Sometimes, when he had money to spare, he bought a dozen pizzas and distributed slices to teenagers, talking to them about Islam and al-Shabab. He called them “my guys.” They called him “uncle.”

Now, three years later — the $20,000 all gone, his personal savings depleted, his gas tank back on empty, his wife and daughters so fed up that they often tell him, matter-of-factly, “Give up. Burhan is dead” — Bihi’s workday began with an early-morning text message from one of those kids who had once called him “uncle.”

“Hey old head, why you lieing man?”

He had promised this teenager a ride across town and some pocket money, but he didn’t have any. He also didn’t have the $10,000 he had promised a local soccer coach for a tournament to celebrate Somali Week. Or the jerseys for the basketball team. Or the apartment for a convicted felon he believed was being recruited by al-Shabab. Or any answers for the grieving stepmother about her suicide-bomber son, Beledi.

“I need today to be a good day,” he said.

He hitched a ride to the nearby Starbucks, where he sat in a circle of 15 elders and asked for money. “I know that I already owe most of you here,” he said.

He met with Dan Severson, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, and showed him a flier for the Somali Week soccer tournament. “If you can help, we can put a big banner up on the stadium, something like, ‘Vote Republican,’ ” he said.

He talked to a young man who had spent time in prison with Beledi and asked if any al-Shabab recruiters had visited the jail. “Really?” Bihi asked. “You don’t know anything?”

By sundown, he had elicited one vague commitment for a $50 donation. He had learned nothing more about Beledi. He called a friend who worked for the United Nations.

“I feel like a street beggar, with nothing to offer but persuasion and promises I can’t deliver,” Bihi told him.

His black hair was upright and disheveled, and the frames of his glasses dripped with sweat. As he walked home, he repeated a popular Somali proverb: “Nin wax cuney xishoo” — a boy will listen to those who provide for him.

In the past year, Bihi had tried and failed to secure government funding for his programs from officials at the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the White House. They all said they consider it safer to start their own outreach efforts than to entrust money to community leaders.

He had flown to Washington to testify before the House Committee on Homeland Security in March, hoping the trip might result in some money for his programs. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), the committee chairman, heralded Bihi as a “real master of these issues.” But the congressman’s support wavered when their conversations turned to money.

“Funding community groups for counterterrorism is just too risky,” King said. “There’s a real danger of federal dollars ending up in the wrong hands.”

Bihi had no money left to distribute in the community. Al-Shabab recruiters, meanwhile, were giving plenty, according to findings from the ongoing FBI investigation. Cellphones. Meals. Shuttle rides to malls. Plane tickets to Africa worth $3,000 or more.

“This country spends so much money fighting terrorism,” Bihi said. “So where is it?”

* * *

Later that night, back at his quiet apartment in Minneapolis, Bihi skimmed an e-mail about the latest congressional hearing on radicalization.

“What’s the point?” he asked. His own trip to testify in Washington had resulted only in more controversy, with media outlets reporting on his 2008 conviction for driving while impaired and a handful of anonymous callers chastising him, saying he cast suspicion on mosques.

Bihi closed the e-mail and opened his Internet browser to begin one of the most productive parts of his workday: three hours each night spent navigating a back channel of al-Shabab Web sites. A group of friends in Somalia helped Bihi find the Web sites, often created one day and then disassembled the next to avoid detection. They provided Bihi with insights into the whereabouts of missing Americans and al-Shabab’s latest recruiting tactics. It was here, he hoped, where he might uncover more information about Beledi.

Bihi navigated first to SomaliMidnimo.com, a Web site run out of Minneapolis. The main story on the page detailed two suicide bombings that day in Mogadishu. Bihi listened to a speech by an al-Shabab general and grabbed a pen to take notes.

“Two believers of God have done their duty today, and many, many more are in line,” the general said.

Next Bihi opened Facebook, where fighters for al-Shabab congregate on Web pages named after famous markets in Mogadishu. A message appeared at the top of Bihi’s page alerting him to one new friend request. Bihi clicked open the message and fell back into his chair. For several seconds, he stared at the name.

Cabdulaahi Faarah.

“Unbelievable,” Bihi said. “This guy must be mocking me.”

Faarah, better known to the FBI as Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax, has recruited at least eight men from Minneapolis to join al-Shabab in the past three years, including Beledi, investigators said. Faarah was a naturalized U.S. citizen who had traveled to Somalia in 2007 to fight with al-Shabab before injuring his leg, sneaking back into Minneapolis and driving a taxi.

He began recruiting other Somali Americans to join al-Shabab in 2008, according to federal court documents, telling them he had fired “fun” guns, married two Kenyan women and experienced true brotherhood while waging jihad. The recruits referred to him as “Smiley,” and those he lured to Somalia were indoctrinated with anti-American beliefs and trained in “small arms, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and military style tactics,” according to investigators.

Late in 2009, Faarah left Minnesota again and traveled to California with Beledi and two other young Somali Americans. He brought a passport and $4,000 in cash, and he and Beledi took a taxi to the U.S.-Mexico border. They flew from Tijuana to Mexico City, according to court documents. They eventually made it to Somalia, where Beledi would detonate his suicide bomb 18 months later.

Bihi clicked open Faarah’s profile page and started to read. Religious views: “Muslim – Sunni.” Political views: “Islamic Action Front.” Employer history: “Ace Driving School.” Education: “Minnesota.” Faarah had posted photo albums of his young daughters next to a picture of Osama bin Laden; testaments to the Los Angeles Lakers next to others about jihad.

“Oh, boy,” Bihi said. “This guy is slick. He’s smooth.”

Faarah and 13 others were indicted in 2009 for providing material support to al-Shabab and conspiring to kill, maim and injure persons abroad. The FBI and the Justice Department held a joint news conference to announce the charges, which Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. heralded as an “unmistakable warning to others considering joining or supporting terrorist groups like al-Shabab.” But Faarah had escaped to Africa by then.

Now, one year after Holder’s warning, Bihi looked at recent pictures of Faarah on his Facebook page. Here he was playing basketball on a dusty court, with a caption that compared him to NBA star Carlos Boozer. Here he was on a red motorcycle, his hands revving the engine. Here he was leaning against the hood of a jeep, and then lifting weights in a rustic gym, and then lounging back in a hammock, eyes heavy, arms folded behind his head.

“Is this a terrorist on the run?” Bihi said, shaking his head. “Look at this guy. He’s laughing at us.”

A while later, Bihi found another Facebook page that appeared to be a tribute to Beledi, updated a few days after his death.

At the top was a picture that had been distributed by the FBI after Beledi first disappeared, of a young man with a wispy mustache who cocked his head and glared into the camera. Beledi’s page had been visited by only a handful of people, and his basic profile was left mostly blank.

But there was one piece of information — enough by itself to send a chill down Bihi’s spine and remind him, he said, that “a few radicals are hijacking and distorting” his beloved faith. The suicide bomber’s work had been summarized in two words.

“Employer: Islam.”

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