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As life’s pressures mounted, he left Minnesota for ISIS

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Mukhtar M. Ibrahim

Abdifatah Ahmed’s life in Minneapolis seemed carefree — a clean-shaven family man obsessed with selfies, shooting hoops at a local basketball court and pumping iron at an Uptown gym.

Below the surface, though, Ahmed, faced a well of problems, and by late 2013, they were closing in.

Earlier, he had called an ex-spouse “in tears” because an ex-wife from another state was seeking to collect child support, which may have sent Ahmed, then 33, into a tailspin.

By November 2013, he’d flown to London to meet up with friends and shake off the pressure. It seemed to work. Later in the month, while still in London, he’d called a loved one to say he wanted to return to Minneapolis, but first had to change his ticket.

But Ahmed, also known as Abdirahmaan Muhumed, never returned. Instead, he would turn up months later in Syria where he became the first Minnesotan to fight for ISIS, and one of the first to die.

Court documents reviewed by MPR News paint a complex picture of Ahmed’s life and sudden change, although they don’t explain exactly how he went from a regular guy feeling life’s strains to someone ready to join one of the deadliest terrorist groups in modern history. Something happened during that trip to London.

The documents also reveal that one of the first people Ahmed called and communicated with online frequently after he disappeared, and even while Ahmed was still in Syria, was his longtime female friend who was also an FBI informant. It’s the first time a woman has turned up in the ISIS cases as an informant.

‘I will die here’

 

Abdifatah Ahmed, who joined ISIS in late 2013, holds a black flag used by ISIS. The flag has the “shahada,” or the testimony of faith that reads: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.” Facebook

Friends say Ahmed was depressed and financially strapped, but that he was no religious fanatic. In London, Ahmed started “relaxing and chewing khat,” a leafy green plant containing some stimulant drugs, according to the informant.

Ahmed’s friend, the informant who was not named in court documents but referred to as J.A.M., said it came to her as a shock how quickly Ahmed had altered his life trajectory.

She described her friend as “non-religious” and believed that Ahmed was “brain-washed” because he had not discussed jihad, terrorism or Syria, according to a court document.

But in private messages on Facebook and on the messaging app Viber in the spring of 2014, when he was with ISIS, Ahmed began talking to the informant about jihad and Syria, telling her, “I will die here.”

“Islam is not just praying u know,” Ahmed told her. “Some one who get kill for the sakeof allah can ask allah to for give[sic] up to 70 of his family.”

Ahmed reminded his friend to read the Quran.

“I will fight until there is no pain in the Muslim lands,” Ahmed told the informant. “If I don’t respond to u over a month that means am not here any more[sic] so forgive me for anything.”

MPR News had communicated with Ahmed in mid-2014 through a series of private messages on Facebook. At the time, he told a reporter: “Family is not gonna save me frm [sic] hell fire because muslims are getting kill[ed] and if i just sit here i will be ask in the [hereafter].”

Also that summer, an FBI spokesperson in Minneapolis told MPR News that Ahmed was among more than a dozen Minnesota men who had enlisted to fight with radical groups in Syria. It was the first time federal authorities in Minneapolis had indicated the scope of the problem.

Months later, the FBI would arrest nine men as part of an investigation into a plot to travel to Syria to join ISIS. In this case, a second FBI informant who was part of the conspiracy played a crucial role in helping the government crack the case by secretly recording his friends’ conversations.

That informant, Abdirahman Bashir, had previously lied to the FBI and to a federal grand jury about his involvement in the conspiracy.

Bashir’s audio recordings of his friends openly talking about their desire to travel to Syria was among the most damaging evidence presented at the trial of three Somali-American men in May. The recordings provided a “fly-on-the-wall view of” the men’s conspiracy, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty said at the trial.

The FBI won’t comment on when Ahmed’s friend started working for the agency, how much she was paid and what evidence she was tasked to gather for the government.

Her profile is starkly different from that of Bashir, who started working for the FBI at the height of the FBI’s investigation into the ISIS cases in February 2015 and was paid more than $100,000 for aiding federal authorities.

‘Turn off your location’

Bashir and Ahmed share a mutual friend named Douglas McCain, a Muslim convert who also joined ISIS in early 2014.

McCain was also friends with two of Bashir’s cousins, the Karie brothers: Hamse and Hersi, who also joined ISIS in 2013 and had attended school with McCain in Minnesota.

McCain exchanged phone numbers, emails and private messages with Ahmed just days before McCain traveled to Syria. He had been living in San Diego at the time.

McCain told Ahmed via Facebook Messenger in March 2014: “In sha Allah” — God willing — “I need to hala at u I am flying to Turkey.”

“dont talk like that on here cuz,” Ahmed replied, probably unaware that one day his messages will end up in court documents. “turn your location off,” he told McCain.

A week later, McCain and another young man named Hanad Mohallim left the country on the same day. They both used the same credit card to purchase their plane tickets for about $1,000 each.

In a sign of how deeply intertwined the relationships were, Bashir, the informant, Mohallim and the Karie brothers are all first cousins.

During his testimony at the trial in 2016, Bashir said Mohallim “was like my brother.”

On the morning of his departure, Mohallim told his family he had a job interview and then would head to the gym.

Around midnight when he did not return home, his mother began to worry. She confronted informant Bashir and his younger brother who refused to tell their aunt where her son had gone. She then called the FBI.

She believed the Karie brothers may have influenced her son when he visited them in Canada in 2013. After he returned from Canada, Mohallim became “more religious,” his mother told the FBI.

On that morning in March 2014, after praying at a local mosque, informant Bashir dropped Mohallim off at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. He told the court he knew where his cousin was going, but he kept it to himself.

Before he said goodbye to his cousin, Bashir told Mohallim: “If you go over there and you think it’s true jihad, then I’m going to come later on.”

He never did. Instead, he flipped in 2015 to become an FBI informant.

His cousin Mohallim, meanwhile, became a source of fascination for the rest of the men he left behind in the Twin Cities. They talked about him in group meetings and started looking for photos of Mohallim on social media.

Eventually, they found out he was killed in an airstrike in 2014, a few months after he joined ISIS.

Waving the black flag

This web of connections illustrate how the first ISIS recruits from Minnesota had inspired the nine men who all ended up getting arrested while attempting to leave the country.

The FBI had sought search warrants for the social media accounts of these men to reveal links between them and to uncover new cases of individuals who aspire to join ISIS.

As these Twin Cities men were trying to find the best routes they could take from Minnesota to Syria to best elude law enforcement, Ahmed was posting on Facebook startling photos from the ISIS frontlines.

Gone were the selfies of the smiling man in Minnesota showing off his biceps. In were the photos of Ahmed in Syria holding rifles and waving the black flag associated with ISIS.

Ahmed’s last post on his Facebook page, on July 25, 2014, was a recruitment video calling on his fellow Somalis to join the jihad in Syria.

“The caliphate was born,” he said, proudly holding the ISIS flag in a dimly lit video. “And Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the commander of the believers.”

In June 2014, MPR News asked Ahmed if he had missed anything from Minnesota.

“My kids and my family,” he said, adding that he now lives a better life and has better friends.

He said his goal was “to bring the muslims safering to un end.”

Then, as if Minnesota and the unhappy life he had left behind were in his thoughts, Ahmed wrote: “I swear by Allah I live un stress life.”

Minnesota

Minnesota terror case shows challenge of predicting attacks

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — After Tnuza Jamal Hassan was stopped from flying to Afghanistan last September, she allegedly told FBI agents that she wanted to join al-Qaida and marry a fighter, and that she might even wear a suicide belt.

She also said she was angry at U.S. military actions overseas and admitted that she tried to encourage others to “join the jihad in fighting,” but she said she had no intention of carrying out an attack on U.S. soil, according to prosecutors. Despite her alleged admissions, she was allowed to go free.

Four months later, the 19-year-old was arrested for allegedly setting small fires on her former college campus in St. Paul in what prosecutors say was a self-proclaimed act of jihad. No one was hurt by the Jan. 17 fires at St. Catherine University, but her case raises questions about why she wasn’t arrested after speaking to the agents months earlier and shows the difficulty the authorities face in identifying real threats.

“She confessed to wanting to join al-Qaida and took action to do it by traveling overseas. Unless there are other circumstances that I’m not aware of, I would have expected that she would’ve been arrested,” said Jeffrey Ringel, a former FBI agent and Joint Terrorism Task Force supervisor who now works for a private security firm, the Soufan Group, and isn’t involved in Hassan’s case. “I think she would’ve met the elements of a crime.”

Authorities aren’t talking about the case and it’s not clear how closely Hassan was monitored before the fires, if at all. When asked if law enforcement should have intervened earlier, FBI spokesman Jeff Van Nest and U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Tasha Zerna both said they couldn’t discuss the case.

Counterterrorism experts, though, say it seems she wasn’t watched closely after the FBI interview, as she disappeared for days before the fires. But the public record in a case doesn’t always reveal what agents and prosecutors were doing behind the scenes.
Authorities are often second-guessed when someone on their radar carries out a violent act. Some cases, including Wednesday’s mass shooting at a Florida high school that killed 17 people, reveal missed signs of trouble. The FBI has admitted it made a mistake by failing to investigate a warning last month that the suspect, Nikolas Cruz, could be plotting an attack.

U.S. officials were also warned about Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev two years before his 2013 attack, though a review found it was impossible to know if anything could’ve been done differently to prevent it. And the FBI extensively investigated Omar Mateen, the gunman in the June 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting. As part of an internal audit, then-FBI Director James Comey reviewed the case and determined it was handled well.

Hassan, who was born in the U.S., has pleaded not guilty to federal counts of attempting to provide material support to al-Qaida, lying to the FBI and arson. She also faces a state arson charge. One fire was set in a dormitory that has a day care where 33 children were present.

Although her attempts to set fires largely failed, Hassan told investigators she had expected the buildings to burn down and “she hoped people would get killed,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Winter said in court. He added that she was “self-radicalized” and became more stringent in her beliefs and focused on jihad.

Hassan’s attorney, Robert Sicoli, declined to talk about whether the family saw warnings. Her mother and sister declined to speak to The Associated Press.

According to prosecutors, Hassan tried to travel to Afghanistan on Sept. 19, making it as far as Dubai, United Arab Emirates, before she was stopped because she lacked a visa.

Prosecutors say that when the agents interviewed Hassan on Sept. 22, she admitted she tried to join al-Qaida, saying she thought she’d probably get married, but not fight. When pressed, she allegedly told investigators she guessed she would carry out a suicide bombing if she had to do it but she wouldn’t do anything in the U.S. because she didn’t know whom to target.

Hassan admitted that she wrote a letter to her roommates in March encouraging the women to “join the jihad in fighting,” prosecutors allege. The letter was initially reported to campus security, and it’s unclear when it was given to the FBI or if the agency made contact with Hassan before the September interview.

It’s also unknown how closely U.S. authorities were monitoring Hassan between the interview and Dec. 29, when she was barred from traveling to Ethiopia with her mother. Prosecutors say at the time, Hassan had her sister’s identification and her luggage contained a coat and boots, which she wouldn’t have needed in Ethiopia’s warm climate.

Hassan later ran away from home and her family reported her missing Jan. 10. Her whereabouts were unknown until the Jan. 17 fires.

Ron Hosko, a retired assistant director of the FBI’s criminal division who has no link to Hassan’s case, said that based on an AP reporter’s description of it, “I would certainly look at this person, not knowing more, as somebody who would be of interest to the FBI.” However he cautioned that the public doesn’t know the extent of the agency’s efforts to monitor Hassan, including whether she was under surveillance, what sort of background investigation was done and how agents might have assessed her capacity to follow through on a threat. He also said the FBI might have made decisions based on her mental capacity.

“Not every subject requires 24/7 FBI surveillance,” he said. The reality is that hard decisions on resources are being made constantly, with the biggest perceived threats receiving the most attention.

“I’m sure there are plenty of days where they hope they are right and they are keeping their fingers crossed,” he added.

Stephen Vladeck, professor of law at the University of Texas, said monitoring possible threats is a delicate balance, and law enforcement can’t trample civil rights while trying to prevent violence.

“This is a circle that can’t be squared,” he said. “We are never going to keep tabs on every single person who might one day pose a threat.”

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Minnesota

Minneapolis flier warned against Muslim ‘inflirtation’ in local politics

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CITY PAGES — Last Tuesday, the day of Minnesota’s political party caucuses, anti-Islamic fliers signed by “your neighborhood infidel” appeared throughout Minneapolis’s Cedar-Riverside Neighborhood, which has a high concentration of Somali-Americans.

The typo-ridden fliers read that a new “MEGA-MN organiation [sic] would like to give a notice that we will not tolerate any inflitartion [sic] from sharia-loving muslims at our prescient [sic] caucus.” The statement continued with equally inflammatory and grammatically deficient lines.

“Clearly, forms of politics has led your country to a shithole state, but this is AMERICA and we will not stand for you muslims bastard. [sic].”

At the top, the flier featured a “TRUMP Make America Great Again” banner.

The flier went public thanks to a tweet from DFL State Rep. Ilhan Omar, who posted a picture of one the day after caucuses were held.

In a subsequent tweet, Omar replied to someone’s question to say the fliers had been reported to the police and the FBI.

Minneapolis Police Department spokesman John Elder said police are aware of the incident and monitoring it, but no action had come from the fliers.

“At this point, from what we know, there has been nothing threatening,” he said.

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Arts & Culture

History Theatre’s ‘Crack in the Sky’ shows the struggles immigrants face

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Jim Walsh

Last Sunday afternoon, as most of America was fixated on downtown Minneapolis and the Super Bowl, a group of Somali-American and African-American actors quietly milled about the History Theatre stage in downtown St. Paul and talked about the importance of storytelling and their own families’ immigration tales.

It was one of the last rehearsals for “Crack in the Sky,” a new play based on Ahmed Ismail Yusuf’s life story and his 2013 book, “Somalis in Minnesota,” that makes its world premiere Saturday at the History Theatre. And while Yusuf’s story of a young shepherd boy’s journey from Mogadishu to Minneapolis is getting the full theatrical treatment, the focus of the play is on the power of the written word.

“A book can change your life, and teachers are not your enemies; they are your best friends,” said Yusuf, who learned to read and speak English when he came to the United States from Somalia as a high school dropout in the late 1980s. He discovered Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and devoured it over two weeks, using the Somali-English dictionary to translate Angelou’s poetic words about overcoming hardship and seizing the day.

“Ahmed is really interesting, because a lot of Somalia people today travel here to seek refuge in Minneapolis,” said Ashwanti Ford, the actress who plays both Yusuf’s mother and Angelou. “Ahmed moved to the States before all the terror and the war broke out in Somalia. He came here to seek an education, and when he was here the horrible things started happening in his country. So this is taking place in the ‘90s, when he hasn’t seen his family in years or months, versus today, when we can be a Facebook click away from seeing someone.

“He’s inspired by Maya Angelou to write, because he read her books and he said to himself, ‘If she has overcome all of this stuff in America, then I can overcome what I’m going through now and I can write my story.’ So it’s him, coming to America and seeking an education, and learning that he wants to be a writer. Through teachers and family members, he learns that he wants to tell his story, a really significant story that is so empowering, and inspire people to keep pushing forward and remain resilient. When I got the call to audition, I was so excited because I’ve always loved Maya Angelou. My mother was a poet; she has all her books.”

‘So many hoops to go through’
“A Crack in the Sky” is being staged at a time in America when Donald Trump — who disparaged the Somali community in Minnesota when he said, “Everybody’s reading about the disaster taking place in Minnesota” just before he won the White House — has issued travel bans and made immigration difficult at best.

Ahmed Ismail Yusuf

“The play is not exactly confronting it, but it shows the struggles an immigrant faces,” said Yusuf. “There are so many hoops to go through that maybe a normal American, an ordinary person, might not even notice it. But it is just quite out there for an immigrant. An immigrant is not exactly the leeches that Donald Trump has painted them to be. They are people who are contributing; they are people who are appreciative of the opportunities they have when they are here.”

“I just hope that when people come to our play that they will realize that not everyone decides to wake up one day, pack up their bags and go, ‘OK, I’m going to emigrate. I’m going to leave everything I’ve known my whole life behind,’” said actor Mohammed Sheikh, who portrays the young Yusuf. “Nobody does that. It’s not an easy thing that you can just decide. It’s not a road trip, you know? It’s a decision that can cost you your life, that can cost you identity, that can cost you happiness, that can cost you just about everything.

“And I just hope that when people come, they will realize that regardless of our skin color, regardless of what we believe in, regardless of how we pray, we’re all fighting the same battle, which is to survive to see another day.”

A Somali proverb
“A Crack in the Sky” gets its title from the Somali proverb, “If people come together, they can even mend a crack in the sky.” Not only does the play detail Yusuf’s immigration tale, it tells the story of what many Somalians and Somali-Americans have faced coming to America over the last two decades. These days, however, daily headlines about deportation and racism provide a stark background to Yusuf’s mostly joyous tale of coming to America.

“I’m getting something more valuable than any prize” by being part of “A Crack in the Sky,” said Sheikh. “Lessons, motivations, and the determination to succeed as a first-generation immigrant in this beautiful country.”

Mohammed Sheikh

He continued his monologue animatedly, as if writing his own story for the stage.

“I’ve been in the United States for three years, and I’ve worked for six months now. I’m basically going through the roller-coaster right now that the character that I’m playing is going through: sending money back, being here, young in your 20s, having ambitions to accomplish a lot, but at the same time the little that you’re making, or the little that you’re getting, you have to divide it into many portions, you know?

“So my family is back in Africa, my mom and my siblings are back in Africa; my dad is here, so it saves me a lot of the trouble that my character experiences. I haven’t seen my youngest siblings or mom for three years. I want to see them, I want to touch them, I want to be with them, but hey, it is what it is. And that’s exactly the same thing Ahmed has dealt with. There are a lot of scenarios and plot twists that I can relate to.”

Angelou wrote, “Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible,” and, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Both truths will be brought to life through March 4 at the History Theater, which has been telling immigrant stories for 40 years.

Impact of travel bans
“I was hoping to have my family join me this year, but with the travel bans going on, I might not be able to for two or three years or until Trump leaves office,” said Sheikh. “It has a huge impact, to be honest with you. A lot of us are trying to bring our families over for the sake of giving them a safe sanctuary, for our kids to become someone, to study without worrying about gun violence or the city being overtaken by another militia.

Ashwanti Ford

“Trump is a hateful person, that’s all I have to say. He’s a hateful person and whoever agrees with him or sides with him, I would hope they would evaluate the humanity and look deep within because you can only imagine I haven’t seen my baby sister since she was 5. She turned 7 last month and she’s, ‘When are you going to come visit me? What are you bringing me?’

“She thinks it’s just a bus away or a simple plane ride, but it’s a lot more than that. Now I’m forced to wait until I get my citizenship because with everything that’s going on today. … You know, I’m Muslim, I’m young, I’m black, my country’s on the ban list, my grandmother’s 78 and I haven’t seen her for 17 years. My grandfather’s 91 and I haven’t seen him since I was born; he’s the last grandparent I have from my mother’s side.

“I have my green card, I could go. But my family keeps on telling me, ‘No, you don’t have to do that with everything, the FBI agents, the undercovers, the travel ban, everything, just wait until your citizenship.’ It’s painful, but I have to do it.

“I’m grateful, man. It could have been worse. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before we see another day.”

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