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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

When radicalization lured two Somali teenagers … from Norway

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Mukhtar Ibrahim

In October 2013, two Somali teenage girls named Ayan and Leila shocked their parents by running away to join ISIS in Syria. Their radicalization story is unusual in that it happened in Norway.

Acclaimed Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad spent years researching what happened. Now her book, “Two Sisters: Into the Syrian Jihad” is available in the United States.

Seierstad, who discusses her book Monday night at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, said she didn’t go looking for the story.

“The story actually came to me,” she said. “It was the father of the girls who actually wanted the story to be written.”

His name is Sadiq, a Somali man who worked for years to bring his family to Norway. He hoped for a better life. He thought things were going well, then everything collapsed when Ayan and Leila disappeared.

When the girls left home, their parents were in shock, Seierstad said. “They hadn’t understood what was this about. Why? And then as months went by and they got to learn more about radicalization, they realized that all the signs had been there. That the girls were like a textbook case of radicalization. And he [Sadiq] wanted the book to be written to warn others, to tell this story to warn other parents.”

It is a perplexing story. Ayan and Leila were bright, and opinionated. They didn’t put up with being pushed around.

“And that is somehow part of why they left, in their logic,” said Seierstad, adding that the girls were convinced Syria and ISIS offered a chance of eternal life.

“They believed that life here and now is not real life. Real life happens after death. And this life is only important as a test. So the better your score, the better you behave in this life, the better position you will have in heaven for eternity. So isn’t that better?”

Seierstad is known for her in-depth reporting. Her book “One of Us,” about Anders Breivik, the gunman who killed 77 people in Norway’s worst terror attack, is an international best-seller.

When published in Norway Seierstad said, “Two Sisters” became the top-selling book for two years running. What pleases her most is the breadth of her readership. She gets email from young Somali girls, and also from government officials who want to prevent future radicalization.

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Ilhan Omar documentary among Minnesota projects headed to New York’s Tribeca Film Festival

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STAR TRIBUNE — Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival will have more than a touch of Minnesota this year. Two projects shot largely in the state will be part of the event that runs from April 18-29 in New York City.

“A Time for Ilhan,” by documentary filmmaker Norah Shapiro, chronicles Ilhan Omar’s successful bid to win election to the Minnesota House of Representatives, making her the first Somali-American, Muslim woman to hold state office in the United States.

In addition, Rosemount native Naomi Ko will be shopping a pilot for a potential series. “Nice,” which was mostly shot in the Twin Cities, stars Ko as a young Korean-American woman who faces a crisis when she’s diagnosed with cancer. Ko, who appeared in the 2014 indie hit “Dear White People,” is hoping screenings at the festival will attract a streaming service or network that will green-light an entire season.

The festival, now in its 17th year, will also feature new documentaries about Gilda Radner and the New York Times, as well as high-profile feature films, including the sci-fi romance “Zoe,” starring Ewan McGregor, last seen showing off his Midwest accent in “Fargo.”

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After charges in Justine Damond killing, racial dynamic remains a focal point

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STAR TRIBUNE — To some, the question loomed large as a former Minneapolis police officer was charged in the killing of an unarmed woman: Would the charges — the first in a case involving a fatal shooting by police in recent Hennepin County history — have come if the officer hadn’t been black and Somali-American and the victim hadn’t been white?

An intense debate over the shooting’s uncommon racial dynamic has played out among police reform activists, in the city’s Somali malls and among the police department’s own officers. Even some passionate proponents of police accountability balked at celebrating the murder and manslaughter charges against Officer Mohamed Noor, saying they reflected the justice system’s racial bias as much as previous local decisions not to charge cops who kill in the line of duty. Some Somali-Americans worried their community, rather than the use of deadly force by an officer, will end up on trial.

But others said the charges are a clear win in the push for more scrutiny of police use of force and possibly the beginning of a tougher approach to law enforcement accountability. Noor shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a 40-year-old Australian spiritual healer and meditation coach, minutes after she called police to report a suspected sexual assault in her southwest Minneapolis neighborhood.

“There have been numerous shootings that the community felt were unjustified and this one with Ms. Damond is one of them,” said Nathaniel Khaliq, past president of the St. Paul NAACP. “I hope it lowers the threshold for officers to be charged in deadly shootings.”

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced the charges Tuesday, more than eight months after Damond’s killing and nearly two years to the day after he declined to charge two white officers in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Jamar Clark. Damond’s family welcomed the charges, calling them “one step toward justice for this iniquitous act.”

Criticism of the charges

On the question of the Noor charges at Remix Barber and Beauty shop in Minneapolis Friday morning, the predominantly black clientele was in near-agreement: After years of pressure for more accountability in fatal officer shootings, a black cop had been made the fall guy. Customers and co-owner Chanda Tolbert said the charges came as no surprise given the races of the officer and the woman who was shot.

“Race has everything to do with it,” customer Teena Hill said. “It’s not a justice system for us.”

Reaction at nearby Jones and Jones Barber Shop, only a block from the site of Clark’s shooting in 2015, echoed that sentiment. “If it was a white police officer shooting a black man, he wouldn’t have been charged,” said Rob Hannah as he waited to get a haircut. “The system fails us a lot.”

Added owner A.J. Turner, “The Somali community needs to be in an uproar. I would be.”

Talk about race and perceived racial bias has lit up Somali community members’ social media accounts, animated coffee shop conversations and brought a couple of emotional impromptu community meetings in the days following the charges. Some have questioned whether Noor was treated differently from other cops who have killed in the line of duty, alleging a rush to judgment absent after other police shootings.

“A lot of the community is saying that if it’s Michael or David, he’s not going to be guilty today,” said Mahamed Cali, who runs KALY 101.7 FM, a Somali-American radio station.

After months of silence, the Somali American Police Association (SAPA) last week criticized the charges, suggesting Freeman had bowed to political pressure ahead of his re-election bid later this year. In an interview, Waheid Siraach, acting spokesman for SAPA, said the case raises legitimate questions about racial bias.

He pointed to former Police Chief Janeé Harteau’s news conference several days after the shooting in which she condemned Noor’s actions before an investigation had been completed. He also noted a cellphone video of Freeman criticizing the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for its handling of the case and telling activists in a taped conversation that to make a charging decision would be “the big present I’d like to see under the Christmas tree.”

“The aggressiveness, the ruthlessness with which Freeman went after this case, and personally Noor, it’s completely different from how they went after other cases,” Siraach said.

Privately, some Somali-American officers complained they were called in to testify before the grand jury simply because of their ethnicity. They spoke about several racially charged incidents in the department in the aftermath of Damond’s shooting, including disparaging comments about Somalis made by a white sergeant on Facebook, which were investigated last month.

Officers and community activists such as Omar Jamal also criticized Noor’s Tuesday firing, which they said sends a strong message to potential jurors. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Police Federation, usually an outspoken advocate of officers accused of wrongdoing, remained largely silent about the Noor matter for months.

Some in the Somali community worry about a broader backlash, noting feverish speculation in some corners of the internet and elsewhere that Noor’s religion and ethnicity motivated the shooting. Former Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann called Noor an “affirmative-action hire by the hijab-wearing mayor of Minneapolis, Betsy Hodges,” and insinuated that Noor may have shot Damond for “cultural” reasons.

Others decried the case as a possible setback in law enforcement efforts to engage with the East African community and recruit officers from its ranks, an initiative that has received international recognition.

“A lot of young people wanted to be a police officer, but they’re rethinking it now,” said Cali, citing his own son as an example. “A lot of young people are saying, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be [the next] Mohamed.’ ”

Some prominent black police reform advocates are speaking out in Noor’s defense. Ron Edwards, a longtime civil rights activist in Minneapolis, noted that 11 days before Damond was shot, on-duty New York City police officer Miosotis Familia was shot and killed as she sat in an RV police command vehicle in the Bronx. During roll calls across the country, Edwards said, officers were told to be on the lookout for situations in which they could be ambushed, to “have their weapons prepared.”

“In those tragic few seconds, officers were following their orders,” he said, adding, “Justice was not served, but I wasn’t surprised.”

Support for the charges

But the response to the charges in Twin Cities communities of color is far from uniform. For some, the bottom line is that a police officer is being held accountable in the death of an unarmed civilian. They feel the case has helped broaden the call for police and criminal justice reform — and could serve as a rallying cry for a community still reeling from the 2016 shooting death of St. Paul school cafeteria worker Philando Castile by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Yanez was acquitted last year on manslaughter charges.

Farhio Khalif, a Somali-American women’s advocate, said she welcomed the charges against Noor as a chance to get to the bottom of what happened the night Damond was killed.

“My solidarity is with the Damond family. Justine has to be given her justice,” she said.

Khalif says that to her, Noor was simply a Minneapolis officer who shot an unarmed woman, and she voiced disappointment that much has been made in the public discourse of his Somali-American background. She said she trusts that the justice system will handle the case without regard to Noor’s race and background.

Some black community advocates also said they are heartened by the charges.

“Just because racist white folks do terrible things to black folks, we don’t have to act like them,” said Mel Reeves, one of the leaders of an unsuccessful campaign pushing Freeman to indict two officers in the Clark shooting. “I don’t support wrong. Clearly, if officer Noor shot Justine Damond, he should be punished.”

All eyes now turn to Noor’s upcoming prosecution. The proliferation of video and other factors have increased pressure on prosecutors around the country to not only charge but convict officers involved in controversial shootings, according to Justin Nix, who has studied police use of force at the University of Nebraska Omaha’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Yet, convictions remain uncommon.

Much remains unknown in the Damond case, which was not captured on video because the officers’ body cameras were turned off at the critical moment. Still, Nix said there appeared to be enough evidence to support charges, regardless of the victim and officer’s race.

“If you separate race from that and you just look at those facts, this is one of those very questionable cases in which charges might be pursued,” he said.

Staff writer Andy Mannix contributed to this report.

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