MINNEAPOLIS - As a new round of congressional hearings focuses in on the terror group al-Shabaab in Somalia, FOX 9 News delved into a question few have dared to ask: What is the connection between a local mosque and the recruitment of Somali youths?As the nation’s lawmakers take a deeper look into the radicalization of American Somalis, many are asking how the young people became radicalized to begin with. How do you take a teenager and convince him it’s his duty as a good Muslim to fight -- and possibly die -- for a country he may not even remember?In an attempt to answer that question, FOX 9 News spoke with a man who has seen both sides of the Holy War.“They were telling us, ‘One day, we’ll take over the whole world,’” recalled the former recruit, who will be identified only as Marsel.Marsel said he was recruited for jihad in Somalia at just 16 years old.“I was involved with the mother organization,” he admitted.Marsel said he was trained by al-Quaeda for a group that would later become known as al-Shabaab. At training camp, there were religious lectures at night and terrorism classes by day, he said.“They were like a mystery to us,” Mansel recalled. “In the mornings, they were our teachers -- teaching us everything from hand grenades to making bombs.”Mansel’s journey began in the early 90s, when Somalia was beginning its long road into anarchy. Injured and disillusioned, Marsel found his way -- like thousands of other refugees -- to Minnesota, where he married and settled down to raise a family.He sent his three young sons to Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, the state’s largest mosque located in south Minneapolis, on the weekends to keep them away from drugs and gangs. Then, Mansel said one of his own children brought home a message that spoke to him once before.“’Is America our country, our enemy, or ally? How do we know that, dad?’ When your children approach you and ask you these kinds of questions, a parent is only left to wonder: What am I going to do about my children?” Mansel said.Mansel said it happened slowly -- almost imperceptibly, but he asked his son where those questions came from and was pointed toward several lectures from Sharif Mohamed Umal.Umal is a controversial and charismatic leader based in Kenya, and one of his numerous lectures from Nairobi was delivered via satellite straight into Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center.
The FOX 9 Investigators recovered a recording from a teenager’s iPod of one of Umal’s lectures focusing on Muslims living among infidels.“What we need is the average Muslim to be true to what he has in his heart. That is, to be with the righteous against the evil people,” the recording says.Abdi Bihi is a community leader who has long warned that some of the so-called scholarly lectures at Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center were not only divisive, but are also potentially dangerous.“He is radical to the bone,” Bihi said of Umal.Bihi said Umal’s lectures can sound like a call to action for young people hearing news from Somalia that Ethiopian troops are invading their home country, raping women and children in the process.“This guy is building the fundamental beliefs of this community and these young people,” Bihi said. “He’s laying down the bricks of radicalization. That’s his job.”The iPod containing the recording belonged to one of the Minneapolis teenagers who vanished from Minnesota nearly three years ago, presumably to go fight in Somalia. His parents did not want to be identified, but said he attended religious school at Abubakar As-Saddique for years and believe that is where he downloaded the lectures.The device contains a mix of the innocent and the insidious, ranging from children’s cartoons telling the story of Mohammed to dozens of podcasts from Anwar al-Awlacki, the notorious leader of al-Quaeda in Yemen. Since the death of Osama bin Laden, al-Awlacki has topped the FBI’s wanted list and the CIA’s assassination target list.So how does faith turn to fighting? Bihi said it’s a problem that’s not limited just to Islam.“Misinterpretation of our holy book -- that’s what we have to deal with,” he said.Many major religions have sects inside that quibble about details and can lean to the extremes, but Bihi said terror groups are using indoctrination as a tool, and he said he knows those techniques were used to manipulate his own nephew, Burhan Hassan.Hassan attended youth programs at Abubakar As-Saddique and also listend to al-Awlacki lectures before he left Minneapolis in November 2008 to join al-Shabaab in Somalia, where he died. Family members say they believe Hassan was killed by the group when he became too sick to fight.Travel itineraries show many of the missing young men first traveled to Kenya, where they reportedly stayed or visited Nairobi’s renowned Sixth Street Mosque, led by none other than Umal.“He’s going to welcome them to his mosque, the Sixth Street Mosque, where al-Shabaab will take them to Somalia,” Bihi said. “Every missing kid in our comminuty, missing for Abubakar As-Saddique.”Despite repeated requests, no religious leaders from Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center were willing to speak with the FOX 9 Investigators, and some of those attending prayer were less-than-eager to let FOX 9 ask questions on Wednesday.In the lobby of the Islamic center, there’s now a sign warning against recruiting at the mosque, but according to a federal indictment, Cabdulaahi Faarax was doing just that Known as Smiley, the Minneapolis cab driver was a recruiter for al-Shabaab and conducted teleconferences with the group at a mosque believed to be Abubakar As-Saddique. Among those recruited, Faraah Beledi, a former gang member known as Bloody, who lived up to his name two months ago when he blew himself at a checkpoint in Somalia. Beledi killed himself and three others in the attack.Beledi was once a volunteer for youth programs at Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, and was even a speaker at one of the mosque’s open houses held after another man who attended the mosque, Shirwa Ahmed, became the first American suicide bomber in an attack that killed 22 in Somalia.It was that event that caught the attention of the FBI three years ago, according to Donald Oswald, who is the new man in charge of the Minneapolis FBI office.“You hit it on the head when you said they could, in fact, do the same activity in this country,” Oswald said. “Whether it’s a lone-wolf syndrome, that is a problem. We try to stay on top of it.”Oswald was brought to Minneapolis specifically because of his counter-terrorism background. Still, he says that while agents can follow the money trail, the ideological trail is more elusive and First Amendment rights protect the satellite episodes.“Generally speaking, they have the right to worship as they see fit,” Oswald said. “Until they cross the line.”Yet, Marsel said he believes the line has already been crossed and took his children out of Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center two years ago because he doesn’t want them listening to leaders who would have them follow his footsteps into jihad.“They can say whatever they want and don’t’ care about repercussions,” he said. “The mosque is using this to radicalize young people without being responsible and not leaving any paper trail.”The controversial issue has been a point of contention within the mosque itself, which has moderated the tone and tenor of its lectures in the past few months. However, police were called to break up a fight at Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center July 4 after some young people accused the mosque of turning its back on Somalia.It is important to note that federal prosecutors have said they believe the suspects indicted on recruiting charges were acting as individuals and proxies for al-Shabaab, not as representatives of the mosque