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Back to Archives | Back to February 2011 Contents 

It Can and Does Happen Here: Somali Youth with Terrorist Ties in the Twin Cities

By Richard W. Stanek, Sheriff, Hennepin County, Minnesota, Sheriff’s Office

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fter 9/11, U.S. law enforcement began to look at homeland security differently; it identified threats of terrorism from groups abroad and was watchful of the centralized and organized plans to attack citizens here at home. Local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies began to work in collaboration, like the Minneapolis–Hennepin County–Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Joint Terrorism Task Force; who shares resources and has successfully interrupted and defended against these types of attacks.

However, the threat to homeland security has changed. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Preparedness Group, the potential threat for U.S. homeland security has shifted to less-organized, locally based individuals who may carry out lower-level incidents with greater frequency.1 We now must accept and plan for a new dimension: homegrown terrorism, where terrorists are recruited from our domestic population and trained and assisted in attacking Americans in a less organized and decentralized fashion, with dispersed and more frequent attempts to attack.

I write to emphasize this new reality: It can and does happen here.

In the past few years, more than a dozen young men from the Minneapolis–St. Paul (Twin Cities) area, nearly all of Somali descent, have traveled to Somalia to join al Shabab, a terrorist group with ties to al Qaeda.2 These Twin Cities residents have trained or fought with al Shabab; officers in Hennepin County believe six young men from the Twin Cities have been killed traveling to Somali to join al Shabab.

The New York Times has described these events as “the most significant domestic terrorism investigation since Sept. 11.”3

Minnesota is believed to have the largest population of Somalis in the United States, approximately 70,000 people, predominantly living in Hennepin and Ramsey counties. Leaders in the Somali community have been proactive in working with law enforcement to begin to address concerns about recruitment in their community and have expressed both alarm and opposition to youth becoming radicalized. Family members and leaders say they were unaware that young men were being recruited by al Shabab.

The number of those involved and who have traveled to Somalia for training has been estimated at more than 20, according to published reports in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.4 The newspaper attributes its information to interviews with family members who have identified their loved ones as being killed in Somalia. Family members said they did not know their loved ones had radical views and did not know how their loved ones had been influenced.

According to a series of reports in the Star Tribune, those believed to be dead include the following:

  • 26-year-old Shirwa Ahmed is believed to be the first Minneapolis man to die in Somalia and the first American citizen to die as a suicide bomber. He died in October 2008; the FBI has confirmed his death is related to terrorism. This is the only case in which the FBI has confirmed the link between a Minneapolis resident killed in Somali and al Shabab.

  • 18-year-old Burhan Hassan was a high school student in Minneapolis who mentioned that he hoped to apply to Harvard University. Like the other men, he did not tell his family he would be leaving Minneapolis and traveling to Somalia. His mother was told by people in Somalia that her son was shot in the head because he refused an order. His body was not found.

  • 20-year-old Jamal Bana was a college student who had grown up in the United States. He had been working as a security guard in Minneapolis prior to leaving for Somalia. His family learned of his death in Somalia when they saw a photo of his bloody corpse on a website. He had been shot in the head.

  • 28-year-old Troy Kastigar grew up in suburban Hennepin County. He was Caucasian, not Somali American He became friends with Somalis in Minneapolis, converted to Islam, and became known as Abdirahman. Acquaintances in Somalia say he was killed in Somalia and was buried along with his friend, Mohamoud Hassan, another al Shabab fighter from Minneapolis. Kastigar’s mother says she does not know what happened to her son.

  • 23-year-old Mohamoud Hassan was a student at the University of Minnesota and voted “most friendly” by his high school class. The circumstances of his death are unclear, yet his family was told he was buried in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

  • 30-year-old Zakaria Maruf worked at a Walmart in the Twin Cities. According to the New York Times, prior to his death in Somalia, Maruf made telephone calls to Somalis in Minnesota and encouraged them to travel to Somalia and join him on the battlefield.5

Federal authorities have confirmed one case. To date, investigations into these incidents have resulted in 14 federal indictments for charges of terrorism-related activities including recruitment and financing.

Looking back on what happened here in Minneapolis with these young men, we have asked ourselves, why didn’t we know about this sooner? What can we do differently? There is much yet to learn from these events, but the lessons learned so far include the following:

1. Homegrown terrorism is a real threat for every community. The attempted bombing at a November 26, 2010, tree-lighting ceremony at the Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Oregon, is a perfect example of this new threat: a naturalized but disgruntled Somali teen reached out on the Internet to would-be terrorists abroad, who assisted him in planning a bombing at the tree-lighting ceremony. We know now that he was intercepted and diverted from his attack by the FBI. The teen, Mohamed Mohamud, was no “lone wolf”; he was looking for connections and assistance, and he wanted to participate in the larger organization.

This case further demonstrates the importance of the right kind of intelligence gathering and sharing among all law enforcement agencies (local, state, federal, and international) in keeping communities safe from the real threats of domestic terrorism and violent crime.

Similarly, on May 2, 2010, two New York City street vendors contacted local mounted police about a smoking Nissan Pathfinder parked on the street. Further inquiry by the police revealed explosives in the truck intended to detonate in Times Square. Faisal Shahzad, a 30-year-old, Pakistan-born resident of the United States was arrested and charged with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and other federal crimes related to explosives; he had become a U.S. citizen.

This is the basic premise for suspicious activity reporting. Clearly, officers must rely on the information of ordinary citizens, as well as the information gathered by law enforcement. We need the public’s help in identifying risks and criminal behaviors. And we have to get over the “it can’t happen here” mentality that might hinder the reporting we need to disrupt terrorism.

2. Build communities of trust and use community-oriented policing effectively. Many local law enforcement agencies have increased their efforts to build relationships within the Somali community in Minneapolis and its metropolitan area. The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office created a new sworn position in the agency to conduct outreach to the Somali community and other diverse populations. The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office meets regularly with Somali community leaders; includes Somali residents on its Community Advisory Board for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office; and last month hosted a conference among Somali leaders, Minneapolis and Saint Paul police departments, the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It now conducts one-day versions of its citizen academy, tailored for specific community groups, and designed one specifically for members of the Somali community to help them learn of the U.S. criminal justice system and the services Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office provides.

A consistent program of community-oriented policing allows law enforcement to respond more effectively to crime within the immigrant communities where language and cultural barriers have been hurdles. The increased contact and dialogue foster information sharing and more opportunities for law enforcement to learn of behaviors that might indicate signs of new terrorism recruitment efforts.

Law enforcement has learned, looking back with the benefit of hindsight, that there were changes in behavior among these 20 or so men that others may have been able to identify. But, these individuals’ parents and leaders did not know law enforcement wanted to hear about their concerns. They might have dismissed their concerns because they did not see them as significant, or they did not know whom to contact.

3. A vigilant public must assist law enforcement. In the spring of 2010, the Homeland Security Advisory Council’s Working Group on Countering Violent Extremism made key findings that are nowprompting the development of best practices for the right kind of information sharing: “All violent crime is local. While there may be some common indicators of ideologically motivated violence, each circumstance is unique, needs to be viewed individually, and viewed within the context of the specific community in which the suspect lives, works, and operates.”6

The working group concluded that “the information-driven, community-oriented policing model has proven to be effective in reducing and/or preventing violent crime across the nation.”7

Clearly, local law enforcement must take a lead role. Nationally, there are seven local officers for every federal officer; by far, local police departments and county sheriff’s offices are the largest employers of sworn officers and set the baseline for the safety and protection of residents.8

One good example of this new focus for local law enforcement is DHS’s “If You See Something, Say Something” initiative for shopping malls and Walmart stores.9 Visitors are encouraged to participate in suspicious activity reporting so law enforcement can gather and share the right kind of information—the goal is to identify behaviors that suggest criminal enterprise to facilitate early intervention.

The campaign in Minnesota began at the Mall of America in Bloomington. The DHS has plans to expand the campaign in the months ahead. The goal is to engage the public to use their best judgment and contact law enforcement if they notice something that may indicate a threat or a crime. The campaign is designed to not only engage people in the fight against terrorism, but also help law enforcement respond to local crime.

Members of the Minneapolis–Hennepin County–FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force are hopeful that outreach and education efforts in the Somali community will crush idealistic notions about joining al Shabab among youth in the Twin Cities Somali community. They are working to protect at-risk youth from radical influences by looking for behaviors that may indicate risk, including the following: (1) withdrawal from family and normal social circles; (2) very tight relationships with a small group of like-minded people; (3) possession of large sums of money or conducting fundraising efforts; (4) acquisition of travel documents; and (5) increased time spent at a religious place of worship or an abrupt change in place of worship.

Awareness has led to change. Leaders have gathered community members to speak out against al Shabab: a travel agent in Minneapolis says he refused services to a few young men who wanted to travel to Somalia, and parents have hidden their sons’ passports.

The risk of radicalization goes beyond Somali youth. Young people throughout U.S. communities are being recruited to join violent gangs. Individuals most at risk include youth from unstable homes, youth from crime-ridden neighborhoods, and youth who are isolated because their language or culture is a barrier. The new style of gangs is brazen, with pictures posted on Facebook for recruiting new members. These new hybrid gangs are less structured with undefined leadership, making it difficult for law enforcement to track them.

Looking back on what happened in Minneapolis with these young men, with the benefit of hindsight, law enforcement leaders have asked themselves: Why didn’t we know about this sooner? What can we do differently? With an honest and candid assessment, it becomes very clear: We all have common ownership, and we all have a role in fighting violent crime and addressing the threat of terrorism in our communities. The best way to begin is by engaging the public and gathering and sharing the right kind of information. ■


1Peter Bergen and Bruce Hoffman, Assessing the Terrorist Threat (Bipartisan Policy Center, September 10, 2010), (accessed December 27, 2010).
2According to Star Tribune reports, court documents indicate that in 2007, Somalis in Minneapolis may have been motivated to fight against the rival country of Ethiopia, which occupied Somali for a time; more recently, experts on politics in East African nations say it’s possible that young men who travel to Somali in support of al Shabab are now al Qaeda supporters because al Shabab has affiliated strongly with that group; investigators are looking into other cases of Somali men in other countries who have also returned to their homeland(s) to fight for al Shabab, including Canada, Sweden, and Denmark.
3Andrea Elliott, “A Call to Jihad, Answered in America,” New York Times, July 22, 2009, (accessed December 21, 2010).
4James Walsh and Richard Meryhew, “Somalis, FBI in Other U.S. Cities on Alert for Terrorist Recruiting,” April 18, 2009,; James Walsh, “Court Records Detail Minnesota Somalis’ Path to Terrorism,” July 15, 2009,; and James Walsh, Allie Shah, and Richard Meryhew, “12 Minnesotans Indicted in Terror Probe,” August 5, 2010, (accessed January 24, 2011).
5This information comes from a series of reports in the Star Tribune; and “Joining the Fight in Somalia,” New York Times, July 12, 2009, (accessed December 27, 2010).
6William Webster to Janet Napolitano, May 21, 2010, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, (accessed December 21, 2010).
7Homeland Security Advisory Council, Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Working Group, Spring 2010, (accessed December 21, 2010).
8There is a ratio of 36 federal sworn officers to 249 state and local sworn officers per 100,000 residents, according to the National Institute of Justice.
9U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Secretary Napolitano Announces Expansion of ‘If You See Something, Say Something’ Campaign to Walmart Stores across the Nation,” press release, December 6, 2010, (accessed December 21, 2010).

Please cite as:

Richard W. Stanek, "It Can and Does Happen Here: Somali Youth with Terrorist Ties in the Twin Cities," The Police Chief 78 (February 2011): 48-52.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 2, February 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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