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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

A Minnesota health advocate’s crusade brings harmful skin lightening out of the dark

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STAT NEWS — MINNEAPOLIS — Karmel Square is a hub of the Somali community here, a colorful, cheerfully noisy hodgepodge of vendors and restaurants unofficially known as the Somali Mall. Amira Adawe stops by often to buy tea and chat in Somali with friends and relatives wearing hijabs and flowing, floor-length skirts. They greet her with smiles and hugs, and she calls them “auntie.”

Her visits are more than social, however. The public health advocate scans market shelves for skin lightening creams that may contain harmful toxins — tubes and jars sold under names such as Fair & Lovely, Prime White, and Miss Beauty 7 Days White.

Some women use the creams in hopes of erasing dark spots, but many rub them over their entire bodies multiple times a day in hopes of whitening their brown skin. The practice pervades many cultures in Africa, Asia, the Middle East — and many immigrant communities in the U.S. — and Adawe has made it her mission to end it.

She began her crusade as a graduate student, after she discovered that creams sold in many Twin Cities ethnic markets contained levels of mercury thousands of times higher than the amounts considered safe by the U.S. government. But her concerns go beyond the physical harm to women. She worries as much about the damage to their self-esteem.

newsnisideIn Somali and other cultures, the lighter-skinned daughter is often seen as more beautiful, Adawe explained recently; in fact, the Somali term for light-skinned — cadey — is considered a compliment. “It’s used as a term of endearment,” she said, “but I think it’s so wrong to say it.”

Public health agencies in several major cities have launched their own investigations of tainted skin creams, occasionally getting advice from Adawe along the way. And now Adawe has created The Beautywell Project, to combat the stigma faced by women with darker skin and take on the industry that promises them beauty in a jar.

By day, Adawe is now a manager for the Children’s Cabinet of Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton. In her “spare time,” she hosts a weekly radio show in Somali that reaches 80,000 people worldwide. She holds educational outreach sessions in Minneapolis and Kenya, talks with imams, and presents at national and international conferences. Sooner or later, most anyone connected with the skin-lightening issue seeks out Adawe. She fields personal pleas for help from Somali men in Minneapolis worried about their pregnant wives rubbing cream on their skin, as well as calls for help from Kenya, Canada, and Australia.

“We can’t address this issue without discussing beauty, what it means and ways to redefine beauty, as well as discussing and educating individuals about wellness,” she said in an interview.

She admits her goal is ambitious. The stigma runs deep, and skin-lightening creams are a multibillion-dollar business overseas, despite bans and public campaigns against the products in many African countries. In the U.S., creams are often smuggled in and sold in small, ethnic markets like at Karmel Square or purchased on the internet. They have been found in Somali, Hmong, Mexican, Dominican, and West Indies communities from California to Minnesota to New York. Users, and even sellers of the creams, are often unaware that they are harmful or illegal.

Somali women are reluctant to speak openly about skin lightening, and Adawe faced resistance when she began her research seven years ago. Her persistence impressed Jim Koppel, who was deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Health at the time.

“It’s a very tight-knit community, and this put her in a tough place,” he said. “It could have had a negative impact on the businesses [that sell the creams], both financially and potentially for legal problems, and was of great concern to her personal reputation. And she went ahead and did it and continues to speak out.”

“I had to be brave enough, and, fortunately, the community saw it as an issue” and supported her, Adawe said. “That means a lot to me.”

A topic few wanted to talk about

One recent afternoon, Adawe was 35 minutes into her radio show, broadcast from the studio of KALY, 101.7 FM, a Somali-American station tucked into a corner of the International Bazaar in Minneapolis. She had been talking nonstop about skin lightening, peppering her fluent Somali with a few English words — endocrine system, mercury, hydroquinone, prescription.

Then she turned to the phones, murmuring in understanding as she listened to a female caller from a Minneapolis suburb. Do you have any more feedback, Adawe asked in Somali.

“Women who practice skin lightening and who have experienced skin damage or illness should come to the radio and discuss their experience without disclosing their names,” the caller said in Somali.

Adawe nodded. The topic of skin lightening is a delicate one, both overseas and in immigrant communities in the U.S. While the stigma associated with dark skin is deep, admitting to using skin-lightening creams is also taboo, thwarting efforts to track the prevalence of the practice. As adept as Adawe is at navigating the delicate social norms and customs of the Somali-American community she’s part of, when she began her research in 2011, she could find only seven women who would talk about their use of skin creams.

It was in those interviews that women told her that they apply the creams to their entire bodies three times a day, sometimes while pregnant or breastfeeding. Most mixed several creams together and stored them in the refrigerator.

Adawe had been suspicious of the creams since her childhood. Growing up in Mogadishu and Minneapolis in a health-minded family (her mother was the head of the maternal and child health bureau in Somalia), she watched with concern when friends’ and relatives’ skin reddened or grew discolored from using skin lighteners. Adawe is grateful for the message she received growing up with the darkest skin of three daughters: “I’m so fortunate I came from a family who embraced me for who I am,” she said.

When Adawe became a county public health educator and a graduate student at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, she was finally in a position to act on her concerns. She purchased 27 samples of creams to test for the toxins she suspected were present.

The tests confirmed Adawe’s fears, revealing that 11 of the products contained mercury, a known neurotoxin. Mercury has been banned in skin-lightening products by the Food and Drug Administration since 1973; the legal limit is 1 part per million. Adawe still remembers the shock she and the pollution control agency specialists who did the testing felt when they saw the results reaching 33,000 parts per million.

FDA spokeswoman Lauren Sucher said mercury is on a short list of prohibited ingredients in cosmetics. “The FDA has been aware of mercury as a potential allergen, skin irritant and neurotoxin for decades,” she said in an email.

Poisonous to the nervous, digestive, and immune systems, it is often found in unlabeled or mislabeled creams; sometimes it’s listed as “mercurous chloride,” “calomel,” “mercuric,” or “mercurio.” Just touching a washcloth or a mother’s cheek that has been rubbed with the products could be harmful to a baby, the FDA notes, interfering with brain and nervous system development.

Yet the agency was able to inspect only 0.3 percent of 3 million cosmetics shipments last year, and it tested just 364 products even though “adverse findings” are discovered in 15 percent to 20 percent of the products tested, the FDA said last June in a letter to New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone Jr.

Even skin-lightening products sold legally in the U.S. often contain ingredients other countries recognize as potential health hazards, Adawe said. Hydroquinone, a potential carcinogen that is banned in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere, is often found in the creams, as are steroids, which can cause acne, thinning of the skin, and hypertension.

Adawe’s testing in 2011 triggered immediate action: The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency cracked down on suppliers (in a raid on one popular store, inspectors found about 20 boxes full of products that contained mercury); the FDA investigated; and the Minnesota Department of Health warned of the danger.

Elsewhere in the country, similar scenarios were playing out. Alerted through data from local and national surveys, health departments embargoed products, conducted home visits, and notified manufacturers and health agencies in other countries. In New York, for example, after finding eight skin creams with mercury after inspecting products from 22 stores, city health workers now visit stores incognito to identify products of concern, said Wendy McKelvey, executive director of environmental health surveillance and policy.

Once notified of the dangers, there’s “pretty good compliance,” McKelvey said. “They’re not wanting to sell hazardous products.”

Adawe is often consulted because she understands and is trusted by the affected community.

“I think it’s extraordinary what she’s doing,” said Lori Copan, a research scientist for the California Department of Public Health. “A person from the community is a much better spokesperson than someone working in a public health department in terms of motivating and speaking the language and being one of them. It would be fantastic for all of us in public health if we had a community leader like Amira.”

The value of that cross-cultural competence is often in the details. Inspired by Adawe’s study, an ongoing biomonitoring project in Minnesota looking at chemical exposure in pregnant women and babies now tracks urinary mercury. With Adawe’s input, the program has fine-tuned details such as how to phrase questions in surveys about use of creams.

“If you ask directly, ‘Do you use it?’ they will never, ever answer,” Adawe said. To get at the truth, she said, it’s better to start by asking what kind of moisturizer they use.

Initial results of the yet-to-be-published study show that more than 30 percent of pregnant Asian women who spoke Hmong in their interviews had high levels of mercury and received special follow-up to help them reduce their exposures. “The higher levels were likely from using skin-lightening creams and eating certain kinds of fish higher in mercury,” said Jessica Nelson, an epidemiologist and program manager at the Minnesota Department of Health, where Adawe works as a legislative liaison. (The Somali portion of the study isn’t finished yet.)

Adawe isn’t resting: She’s happy that skin lightening has been established as a public health issue. Still, Adawe said there’s plenty more to be done. Next up, she said, is trying to reframe what it means to be beautiful. She’s developing a curriculum for schoolgirls and outreach sessions focused on men, teenagers, and new teachers, which will revolve around the question: How do we change the narrative of what is beauty?

“My dream is that every woman stops using skin-lightening creams and trying to change their color,” she said, “and that they are happy for who they are.”

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Minnesota

ICE Abused Somalis for 2 Days On a Plane and Now Wants to Send Them Into Harm’s Way

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Rahim Mohamed’s daughter was born in October, but the 32-year old father, who has been detained in immigration custody since April, has not seen or held her. If Immigration and Customs Enforcement has its way, he won’t get that chance. Instead, he will be summarily deported to Somalia, despite the fact that Rahim fears persecution by Al-Shabaab, the Somali-based affiliate of Al-Qaeda, and would be leaving behind his U.S. citizen wife, toddler son, and infant daughter.

Rahim is one of 92 Somali nationals, currently locked up in Florida, who ICE is rushing to deport before they have a chance to ask to reopen their immigration cases so that a judge can consider the danger to their lives. The Somalis have filed a lawsuit against ICE to stop their immediate deportations. In addition to the ACLU, they are represented by the Immigration Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law, Americans for Immigrant Justice, the James H. Binger Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota Law School, the Legal Aid Service of Broward County, and The Advocates for Human Rights.

On Tuesday, we appeared in federal court to argue that these men and women must receive a full and fair opportunity to reopen their cases before an immigration judge in keeping with due process and habeas corpus rights. It is against U.S. law to deport anyone to a country where they are likely to be persecuted or tortured. Immigration law also permits the reopening of removal orders based on changed circumstances.

However, ICE seems intent on ignoring both of these facts.

It’s a disturbing pattern that’s quickly becoming a calling card of the Trump administration: targeting communities that were previously low-priorities for immigration enforcement and attempting to force them out of the country as hastily as possible, no matter the danger that may await them. In 2017, the ACLU challenged this ICE bully tactic on behalf of a nationwide class of Iraqis and a community of Indonesians in New Hampshire, securing crucial time for our clients to reopen their cases.

For those detained, Somalia is a distant and frightening place. Many have spent years building lives in the United States and, like Rahim, are married to or are the parents of U.S. citizens. As a truck driver with his own small business, Rahim is the primary breadwinner for his family. His parents and his nine siblings are all U.S. citizens, and he does not have any close relatives left in Somalia.

Rahim currently has an immigration petition pending based on his marriage, and, as a victim of a shooting, he was found eligible to apply for a U-Visa, a type of visa for victims of crimes in the United States who have helped law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity. Despite all this, ICE wants to deport him anyway

All of the 92 men and women fear returning to Somalia, citing concerns that their time in the United States will mark them as targets for violence. On October 14, 2017, Al-Shabaab killed more than 300 people in an attack in Mogadishu. Just two weeks later, a second attack killed 23 more people.

DROP CHARGES AGAINST PEACEFUL PROTESTERS

TAKE ACTION NOWWhat’s more, many of the Somali men and women are still recovering from abuse at the hands of ICE during their first botched deportation attempt. On December 7, the group was put on an airplane bound to Somalia, which was ultimately turned around following a more than 20-hour layover in Dakar, Senegal. The Somalis reported being shackled and beaten by ICE agents and forced to stay seated during the entire 48-hour episode. Rahim, who has diabetes, stated he was denied access to the restroom on the flight and shackled the entire time, leaving his legs severely swollen. Rahim recounted the humiliation and physical abuse on the plane, instances of ICE agents punching and choking men in front of him, as “inhumane, like we were slaves or something.”

“I had never felt so disrespected or like I wasn’t a person,” Rahim said.

Following the ordeal, the Somalis were returned to immigration detention, many at Glades Detention Center where they have reported further abuse, including being denied medical care, the use of pepper spray and excessive use of force. Now, because of widespread media reports of the plane abuse, the Somalis fear that they will be all the more visible targets if deported. The U.S. State Department currently warns against travel to Somalia “because of widespread terrorist and criminal activity.”

It’s clear that the federal government knows the danger that awaits these men and women if deported. It’s disturbing that ICE does not care; but fortunately, the agency is not above the law. As of this week, the judge has stayed any deportations until he rules on January 22, giving Rahim and 91 other Somali nationals hope that the country they know as home won’t deport them into danger.

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EXCLUSIVE: Somali man detained by ICE returns home, takes legal action

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(KMSP) – As he was about to be sent back to Somalia, a Minnesota man was yanked off the flight at the last minute. He’s among 92 men facing deportation orders overseas.

Now, he’s back home in Minneapolis with his family and sharing his harrowing ordeal.

Maxamed Adan is one of only a handful of men who received emergency stays by a federal judge last month and is allowed to be back in Minnesota.

“You lose all your freedom,” Adan said.

Adan describes the months he spent in federal custody at an immigration detention center in Louisiana, awaiting deportation back to Somalia. Adan was doing his regular check-in’s with his immigration officer when he was arrested in September.

“[I gave] my driver’s license, and then he said, ‘wait.’ Three guys came over and they just arrested me,” he said.

With his hands and feet shackled, he was transported for hours, not knowing if he’d ever see his family again.

Adan came to the U.S. in the ’90s seeking asylum from war-torn Somalia.

He’s lived in Minneapolis for more than 20 years and is married with three young children. His wife. Ifrah Ali, also escaped the violence in Somalia and was granted American citizenship.

“How do you tell the kids? How do they understand the situation that their father may never be here?” Ifrah Ali asked.

While working and raising his family, Adan was in the process of trying to become naturalized. But the Trump administration has since cracked down on all immigrants, regardless of their protected status.

“I don’t want to get separated from my family; I want to raise my kids with the American ways,” Adan said.

Adan narrowly missed being put on a failed deportation flight to Somalia after his attorney intervened.

But dozens of other men from Minnesota did not have the same luck.

“The flight as a whole was really a tremendous ordeal for everyone—46 hours shackled, hands to their waist and feet. Many people weren’t able to use the bathroom,” said John Bruning, who represents Adan and several others on the flight.

Lawsuits have been filed on behalf of the detainees, claiming they suffered horrific abuse both on the plane and in the Miami detention centers.

In his declaration, Bruning writes about one of his clients’ injuries: “the pain was exacerbated by a physical altercation with guards on the flight that landed in Senegal.”

“The conditions in jail are so bad for a lot of people that a number of them who have good claims to stay here are considering going back just to get out of jail,” he said.

The next hearing will be in Miami on Jan. 22. If the judge finds jurisdiction, the cases of these detainees will move to the next step. If not, then they most likely will be sent back to Somalia for good.

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