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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Why a retired British army colonel has become the last hope for Somalia's forgotten hostages


Even by Somalia’s standards, the village of Amara is a lawless place. A tumbledown hamlet in the sunbleached scrubland north of Mogadishu, it lies in a “no man’s land” between turf controlled by local warlords and the al-Shabaab Islamist militia. It is the perfect spot to keep hostages, and during the height of the Somali piracy crisis, its shabby homes served as jails for Paul and Rachel Chandler, the kidnapped British yachters.


Last month, another group of hostages finally walked free from Amara - this time four bedraggled, traumatised crewmen from the Prantalay 12, a hijacked Thai fishing vessel. But while their release did not attract the publicity that Western cases do, their place in the history of piracy is already assured. The four sailors had been held for just short of five years, giving them the dubious distinction of being the longest-held Somali hostages on record. Abandoned by the ship’s owners, who had failed to pay kidnap and ransom insurance, six of their fellow crewmen had already died from illness and neglect. That the rest have been spared the same fate is thanks not to a team of special forces soldiers, but to an ex-British army officer with a kind - if slightly unreliable - heart.


Two years ago, Colonel John Steed, a former military attache to the British embassy in neighbouring Kenya, began his own personal mission to save those who were dubbed the “forgotten hostages” - the 100-plus sailors who still languished in pirate custody as of 2013. Drawn exclusively from poorer nations, their stories are a dark mirror image of that of Captain Phillips, the hijacked American whose rescue by US Navy seals became a blockbuster movie. Most have spent years in captivity, left to their fate not just by their employers but by their governments, who lack either the will or the means to mount rescues.

Mr Steed’s only chance is to get the pirates to see the sailors as a lost cause too. He tactfully persuades them to abandon hopes of a multi-million dollar ransom, and settle for a much smaller payment of “expenses”, which he scrapes together from charitable donations.

A high-stakes, dangerous game, it is not for the fainthearted - something that Mr Steed, 59, is all too well aware of, having suffered a serious heart attack just three months into his work. Still, given how close last month’s release operation came to disaster, it seems his heart surgeon did a good job. After raising a sum believed to be around $150,000 for the release of the four Thais - a fraction of the original $9 million ransom demand - Mr Steed flew to the Somali town of Galkayo, from where he despatched a team of Somali go-betweens to undertake the exchange in a patch of desert outside Amara. All was going fine, until he got a call on his mobile. He could hear a firefight.

“An al-Shabaab faction had attacked both my group and the pirates - they were probably after the money,” Cornwall-born Mr Steed told The Sunday Telegraph from his home in Nairobi, where he works from an office in his spare room. “I could hear the rounds going off in the background, and as someone who had a heart attack not that long ago, I could feel my blood pressure going rather high.

“Luckily, we’d arranged a strong guard force of about a dozen armed men, and they were able to see the attackers off. If we’d lost the money, it would have been disastrous.”

The four Thai sailors are now back home, after a 1,774-day ordeal that sounds like something from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Thinking the owner’s refusal to pay a ransom was a bluff, the pirates quickly departed from the usual Somali practice of treating their captives humanely, deliberately giving them salty, brackish drinking water. Five eventually died after suffering swollen limbs and various other conditions, and were buried at sea.

Not all Somali piracy cases end as happily as that of Captain Phillips

The rest were transferred to the Somali mainland after a drunken pirate crashed their ship, since when they have spent their time in a dark, windowless hut with nothing to do. Unable to speak English, they initially thought that the go-betweens who came to pick them up were another pirate gang, their bafflement growing even greater when a group of local officials handed them smart suits to wear for the handover to Mr Steed. He arrived to find what looked like a Thai business delegation in the middle of the Somali scrub.

“It was a very emotional moment, and there were some tears in the plane out,” he says. “Three of them don’t seem too bad, given the circumstances, but one is showing signs of quite severe psychological trauma.”

A former Royal Signals officer, Mr Steed first dealt with pirates during his work as a military attache, and continued to do so when he moved to a job as a counter-piracy expert with the UN’s Somalia office in 2009. He realised that while a great deal of public money was being directed at fighting the pirates, very little was being done for their victims.

“We were building pirate prisons and funding prosecutions that would respect their human rights and so on, but we weren’t really doing anything for the victims at all,” he says.

Having realised that if he didn’t do it, nobody else would, Steed raised some money from various UN contacts to fund an office, from which he draws a modest stipend. Often his first challenge was simply finding out where the hostages were and who was holding them. Tracking down the ships’ owners was even harder, with many claiming to have either gone out of business or simply going underground.

“It is disgusting,” he says. “They are sending people into known pirate zones without adequate insurance coverage, and then abandoning them when they get into trouble.”

At first, he says, he gets short shrift from the pirates. While their boom years are long over - the posting of armed guards on ships has all made hijackings all but impossible - many are used to raking in up to $10m per ship, and can be difficult to convince that they have picked a vessel with no owner willing to cough up.

Still, even on Somali wages, the costs for a pirate leader of paying his men to guard a ship for years on end can run into tens of thousands of dollars. An offer to at least cover their “expenses” can eventually prove tempting - especially if the pirate leader has “investors” to pay off, and especially if the alternative might be nothing at all. It is a painfully slow process: it has taken Mr Steed two years to free just two ships. Those who argue that pirates should never be paid any money whatsoever, he adds, are not living in the real world.

For security reasons, he is coy about exactly where his “expenses” money comes from - beyond saying it is from a private charity of limited means. He is, however, happy to mention the role of those who provide pro-bono help, which again is a mainly British effort. A firm of London-based shipping lawyers, Holman Fenwick Willan, provide legal advice, while he is helped in the negotiations is by Leslie Edwards, one of Britain’s most experienced kidnap negotiators.

“A lot of negotiating firms did well out of piracy during the boom years of 2008-11, and we have a moral duty to deal with those hostages left behind,” says Edwards, who has dealt with kidnappers of every kind, from al-Qaeda and the Taliban through to Colombian drug cartels.

“Dealing with pirates isn’t what people usually imagine solicitors doing, and the work is challenging and emotive,” added Richard Neylon, of HFW. “But it’s very good when you’ve played a part in helping to save these seafarers’ lives.”

That was certainly the case with the Albedo, whose mainly Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi crew was taken hostage in November 2010, and which last year became Steed’s first successful case. As the ship’s captors grew ever more frustrated at the owner’s refusal to pay a ransom, they resorted to tactics as brutal as those in piracy’s medieval heyday.

Sailors were lashed until they passed out, had their fingernails torn out with pliers, and were forced to lie on the sun-baked deck for hours on end. On one occasion, the entire crew were put in the ship’s disused swimming pool and kept without food or water for three days, while the pirates urinated on them and hurled in pails of sewage. One sailor was shot in cold blood as a warning to the owner, while four others drowned when the boat sank in heavy seas. Mr Steed said that when his team finally got them out, it was “the greatest feeling in the world”.

Even his long-suffering heart doctor has become a convert to his cause, Mr Steed recruiting him to medical check-ups on newly-released hostages. Mr Steed now has eyes on a third crew, the 26 men of the Taiwan-owned Naham 3, whose third anniversary in captivity beckons at the end of this month. And every so often, new “forgotten” cases come to light.

“During the Thai case, we learned that there were two Kenyan medics being held in the same village,” he said. “It’s now just a question of trying to raise the money.”

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Somali group denounces racist graffiti, says it was expected after anti-Islam speech

A leader of a Grand Forks Somali organization responded Tuesday to racist graffiti found on a commercial building recently.

Faisal Abdi, in a message to the Herald, said the graffiti was a "desperate attempt to spread hatred, suspicion and division among the peacefully coexisting communities in the Greater Grand Forks (area)."

Abdi is a member of the Somali Community of Grand Forks, a nonprofit organization established in January, according to its Facebook page. The group aims to provide basic social, educational and cultural services to Somalis in the Grand Forks area.

The words Somalia and a racist slur were found spray-painted on the north side of a strip mall at 1020 S. Washington St.. After news of the defaced building spread Monday on Facebook, the building owner was notified and he painted over the words later that day.

"Although the graffiti specifically targeted the Somali community, the Muslim communities in Grand Forks expected the spike of racist reactions after the anti-Islamic speech by Usama Dakdok that took place at the Empire center last week," he said. "That speaker had one message to share with his vulnerable audience: Anti-Islam -- an intolerable hatred and fear toward the religion of Islam and Muslims."

Dakdok, a Christian public speaker, gave a seminar titled "Revealing the Jihad and Terrorism of Islam" March 17 before a crowd of nearly 200 at the Empire Arts Center. Phil Ehlke, general manager of the radio station Q-FM, which organized the Dakdok event, defended the speaker and said the seminar was informative. None of the people who attended the event felt it was hate speech, he said.

Abdi wrote about joining the silent protest of more than 150 people before Dakdok's event.

"The sick individual who sprayed the graffiti and Usama failed," he said. "We consider such bigoted individuals isolated bad apples and not representative of the great people of Grand Forks. In fact, the Muslim community feels safe and at home. We love this beautiful city and continue to strive for the betterment of our inclusive and welcoming community."

Abdi said he intends on talking to local organizations like the Global Friends Coalition and others to organize a potential educational event.

Bill could boost funding for Somali youth | mndaily.com - The Minnesota Daily

Bill could boost funding for Somali youth | mndaily.com - The Minnesota Daily


State lawmakers want to lend additional support to Somali youth in Minnesota who may be at risk of gang violence, drug abuse and radicalization.
A bill introduced this session would appropriate state money to Ka Joog, a nonprofit that focuses on reducing adverse experiences and increasing educational opportunities for Somali youth.
The legislation would expand the afterschool program the Takeoff 4H STEAM Club, which Ka Joog runs in partnership with the University of Minnesota. In addition, the bill would allocate funding for Ka Joog to start a pilot program that would create internship opportunities and job readiness training for youth.
“It’s all about getting youth engaged and involved and giving them the skills to be productive adults,” said Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, author of the bill.
The bill, which has already passed two legislative committees, would provide $1.9 million over the next biennium to expand the partnership program between Ka Joog and the University to other cities in Minnesota.
Mohamed Farah, executive director of Ka Joog, said the proposed state funds would allow the program to reach other parts of Minnesota with large Somali populations, like Willmar, Rochester and St. Cloud.
“We’ve had a lot of success in the Twin Cities, so we’re trying to take that where you have a high population of Somalis,” he said.
Farah said Ka Joog was created in 2007 when a group of Somali youth met and discussed the problems their community was facing.
“They wanted to create a foundation that does two things: One, get young people away from all negative influences, and two, put them in the right direction, which was and still is education,” Farah said.
Jennifer Skuza, an assistant dean of the University’s Extension office, which helps run the program with Ka Joog, said the organizations partnered in 2014 to start the after-school program with funds from private and federal grants.
The program allows kids to meet daily and work on projects related to science, technology, engineering, the arts and math, she said.
“On a given day, they’ll be working on an engineering project. They’ll be working on a performance arts project, so you’ll see a content focus to it, but also there’s time for young people to have some tutoring as well as some homework help,” she said.
The program, which currently exists in Eden Prairie, enrolled 25 members, but there are many more on a waiting list, Skuza said.
With current funding sources, Skuza said the University and Ka Joog will bring the after-school program to schools in St. Paul and Minneapolis starting this summer.
Farah said the organization also wants to establish more of an international presence, and it’s currently opening locations in East Africa.
“It’s not just in Minnesota, but it’s also working with the international community to make sure that young people are thriving everywhere,” Farah said. “In order to do the work that we’re doing, we can’t do it alone.”

Somali Police Officer Moving Barriers in Minn. | Officer.com

Somali Police Officer Moving Barriers in Minn. | Officer.com

During a typical afternoon on the impromptu soccer field in the middle of the Hilltop Lane apartment complex, 13-year-old Abdi Ali rules the field. He does his best to keep about a dozen younger kids around him focused on the game as they romp around the brown turf bordered by makeshift goals. They listen to him as he barks out names and tips about what to do with the ball.
Then officer Mohamed Mohamed pulls up in his Mankato Department of Public Safety squad car. Within a few seconds, the field is empty and Ali stands alone.
In some neighborhoods, you might expect youngsters to ignore a police officer when he pulls up or decide to move along to another location. The uniform is often a sign someone's in trouble -- and it's not always pleasant answering questions from the officer wearing the badge and crisp blue shirt.
For the kids hanging around with Ali -- many of them the children of Somali refugees -- the stories about police officers could create more concern. They may have heard their parents talking about run-ins with law enforcement in their home country where a family member or friend faced brutal force or was taken away and never seen again.
The reaction to Mohamed doesn't fit either scenario.
Kids swarmed around the officer, bouncing up and down as they took turns throwing high-fives and riddling him with questions. Mohamed smiled, got the kids focused again, and within a couple of minutes they were back on the field playing soccer. Mohamed joined them, blocking shots and giving pointers.
Ali didn't mind losing the spotlight for awhile. The young coach likes officer Mohamed, too. They talk a lot and they're working together with other volunteers to start a neighborhood sports program this summer. The plan is to have kids from all over Mankato travel around to challenge other neighborhoods to a soccer match or other competition.
"He's actually pretty cool," Ali said as he watched the mayhem. "He's doing good things for us and we like having a police officer we know."
Career pursuit
The fun doesn't last long.
Mohamed has priorities and his police radio reminded him of that a short time after he arrived. He quickly told the kids about emails being sent to their parents about the summer sports program, passed around some quick goodbyes and got back into his squad to hustle off to a call.
He's as busy as any other officer in Mankato, spending much of his time responding to service calls for neighbor disputes, auto crashes, theft reports, drug complaints and more serious crimes involving weapons and violence. When there's time for community policing, he's been assigned to the Somali community. That includes the Hilltop Lane neighborhood, where there is a large population of Somali renters, and a few grocery stores around town.
Being a police officer is something Mohamed has always dreamed about. That dream started as a child in Somalia and continued after he became a refugee in Egypt. When he moved to the U.S. as a college freshman, settling with his family in Hopkins, he believed his chances of ever working in law enforcement were over. He didn't realize it was a job someone in this country could have without being born and raised here.
"In my head, I thought you could only be a police officer if you were born in that country," he said. "That's how it is in Third World countries."
Mohamed described a childhood that wasn't easy. Even after his family left Somalia to live in Egypt, he had to go to work at a young age because his family needed the income. He worked a variety of jobs, including a few in groceries where he stocked shelves and did other menial jobs. Somali community policing Ahmed Barkhadle was one of the first Mankatoans officer Mohamed Mohamed met when he was thinking about joining the Mankato Department of Public Safety.
"When I was little, I worked hard," he said. "I got home from school and I went to work. Things were different there. You worked all day for $5 and there were no age limits to have a job."
That work ethic helped him achieve a goal of receiving a college degree, even after he was told he would have to return to high school in Hopkins to meet the requirements for a higher education. Mohamed originally planned to go into business but decided to pursue his childhood dream again after meeting a Somali police officer in the Twin Cities.
"He told me all you need is citizenship, a college degree and you have to love the job," Mohamed said.
There were opportunities in the Twin Cities area after he graduated, but Mohamed decided to accept a job in Mankato instead. He's relatively new to the force and the first Somali-born officer to serve with the Department of Public Safety.
The department has a philosophy of community policing, something Mohamed has embraced while starting his new career. He quickly became well known within Mankato's Somali community and has been building bridges in places that had been difficult for officers in the past.
The department has had a strong relationship with the Somali community for awhile, but Mohamed has added a new dimension, said Todd Miller, public safety director.
Mohamed is Somali, he speaks that language and Arabic, a language shared by other African refugees living in Mankato, and he knows what it's like to be a refugee living in the U.S.
Much of what he is doing, including his plan for a summer sports program, fits perfectly within the community policing philosophy, Miller said. Not just with Somalis, but the community as a whole.
"We try to hire leaders," Miller said. "Every one of our officers has an assignment: a neighborhood, a campus, working with seniors. I tell them to make decisions like they are the chief of police of that neighborhood."
Officers are allowed to do anything they want to do in their assigned area as long as it meets the department's mission of "Leading the way and making a difference."
Mohamed said he wanted to be in a job where there was a large Somali community and he could be the first Somali officer. The departments in Minneapolis and St. Paul already had several, so he didn't think he could have the same impact as he could have in Mankato.
"I thought, 'What about smaller towns?" he said. "There are other Somali communities that need police officers."
His decision has paid off for the Department of Public Safety, said Deputy Director Amy Vokal. Mohamed is a community-minded person, so his skills can be used throughout the city.
"He has a different skill set than we were used to and all of a sudden we can speak to more people than we used to," Vokal said. "He's a talker and he's very, very easy to talk to, and he connects with people. He's very good with people, people across the board.
"He's obviously much better equipped to understand what it's like to be a refugee in this country than most of us are. When he talks to somebody, he can get that personal background."
Moving barriers
One of the first people Mohamed met in Mankato was Ahmed Barkhadle, owner of the Barkhadle International Grocery across the street from downtown's Public Safety Center. He stops by the store regularly to talk to Barkhadle and his customers, which is one of many tools he uses to develop relationships that help him on the job.
When I came here for an interview for the job, I said, 'That looks like a Somali name,'" Mohamed said. "So he's the first person I got to know in Mankato.
"If you want to get to know the community or meet people in the community, a good place to come is the grocery store."
Barkhadle is used to officers stopping in now and then to talk or pick up a snack during their shifts, as they do at many local businesses. But having Mohamed stop by for visits is a more comfortable experience because fewer barriers exist.
"I was so happy to see this guy," Barkhadle said during a recent visit. "When the officer can speak your language, it's very helpful."
The same visit also brought a little razzing from a younger customer in the store. He didn't know Mohamed but recognized him from seeing him at a business in St. Peter. Translating later, Mohamed said the man said he saw him eating.
"I told him I was hungry," Mohamed said as he laughed and rubbed his stomach.
He was moving barriers -- something that's easier to do in a grocery setting than in the middle of a police call where someone is being cited or facing arrest. The same skills come into play during those situations, though, Mohamed said.
Somali community policing 3 Saleh Ahmed, left, and Burhan Ahmed visit with officer Mohamed Mohamed at the International Halel Market in the Village East strip mall.
"A lot of Somalis, when they get into trouble, they have some sort of language barrier," he said. "They don't understand their rights and the laws, so it creates more barriers."
His grocery loyalties in Mankato change when he's looking for a prepared meal. A good time to visit the International Halel Market in the Village East Center strip mall near Hilltop Lane is during breakfast, lunch or dinner, he said.
"I'm single and I don't cook, so I stop here often," he said during a recent visit to the restaurant and store.
Mohamed Ahmed, the store's latest owner, is a 2004 East High School graduate who received an associate degree in sales and marketing from South Central College before earning a bachelor's degree in accounting from Minnesota State University. He has only developed a casual relationship with Mohamed so far, but he said he likes how the officer talks to store customers and works with kids living in the Hilltop Lane apartment complex.
Ahmed used to be one of those kids when his family moved into the complex in 2001.
"I think he's not helping only Somalis, but Africans -- the immigrants," Ahmed said. "He respects the language. He talks to young people. He builds trust. He's a gentleman.
"We want a feeling of trust between the police and the community."
After Mohamed left Ahmed's store, his next stop was the nearby soccer field where Ali and the other kids were playing. As he left for his police call, he said his first year on duty in Mankato has confirmed he made the right decision. The kids he enjoys working with show that.
"It feels good to let them know if you have a dream, you can achieve it," he said.
Copyright 2015 - The Free Press, Mankato, Minn.
Tribune News Service

Kenya beefing up security on Somali border | News24

Kenya beefing up security on Somali border | News24

Kenya plans to build a new road, more border crossings and barriers on its 700 km border with Somalia in an attempt to thwart attacks from the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab, the interior ministry said on Monday.
Kenya is under heavy pressure to improve security after numerous militant attacks that have killed well over 200 people since 2013, mostly in the border counties of Mandera and Lamu.
The al-Qaeda linked al-Shabaab group has claimed responsibility for much of the bloodshed and has vowed revenge against Kenya for contributing troops to an African Union force battling the militants in Somalia.
"The idea is to ensure that there are clear border entry points," said Mwenda Njoka, a spokesman for Interior Secretary Joseph Nkaissery.
"It's not that you're going to put up a 700km wall."
Njoka said authorities had sent surveyors to the crime-ridden border region, which is awash with bandits and gunmen and includes hundreds of kilometres of dense forest and marshes.
Njoka said the project should begin this financial year but could not say how much it would cost, when it would be completed or how many additional patrol guards would be deployed. It was also not immediately clear whether the planned new road would run the full length of the border with Somalia.
Critics on social media were quick to mock the plan, saying the government would do better to focus on tackling corruption. Analysts say it is possible to purchase a Kenyan passport for $100, while those caught up in police sweeps targeting suspected terrorists pay bribes to be released from jail.
Nkaissery was appointed interior minister last December as part of a security shake-up following two attacks in Mandera, northeast Kenya.
Those raids angered many Kenyans and prompted President Uhuru Kenyatta to replace his top security officials and push through a new law with sweeping counter-terrorism powers.
This month, in the most recent strike claimed by al-Shabaab, gunmen attacked the convoy of Mandera governor Ali Roba, killing four soldiers.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

From Minneapolis to ISIS: An American’s Path to Jihad - NYTimes.com

From Minneapolis to ISIS: An American’s Path to Jihad - NYTimes.com

Reading back over Abdi Nur’s Twitter feed, his chilling progression from the basketball courts of South Minneapolis to the battlefields of Syria is clear.
Early last year, he began posting stern religious pronouncements and snippets of scripture. By April 2, a day after turning 20, he hailed Islamic fighters: “If the sky would be proud of the existence of the stars, the land should be proud of the existence of the Mujahideen.”
On May 29, the day he disappeared, he posted, “I Thank Allah For Everything No Matter What!” Soon he was in Turkey, rebuffing his mother’s and sister’s anguished pleas to come home. In late July, he declared, “What A Beautiful Day in Raqqa,” the de facto capital of the Islamic State in Syria. Last Aug. 7, he posted a picture of himself online with his finger on the trigger of a Kalashnikov.
Mr. Nur had become one of a small number of Americans enticed by the apocalyptic religious promise of the self-described Islamic State, which has seized large sections of Syria and Iraq and claims to be building a caliphate.
Photo
A 50-page guide for Islamic State volunteers was distributed online in February, offering practical travel advice on what to pack, and more tailored counsel on how to avoid detection by the authorities.
A slightly built man with an easy smile, he is a rare example of an American fighting for the terror group whose story can be pieced together from online postings, interviews and public records. His case suggests that the Islamic State may rely on recruiters inside the United States and shows how hard it is to predict who will be swept away by ideological fervor.
Mr. Nur was enrolled in community college outside Minneapolis and spoke of becoming a lawyer. Then he started visiting a new mosque and dressing in more traditional garb. He plotted his getaway with a friend, Abdullahi Yusuf, 18, but their fates starkly diverged. Mr. Yusuf was stopped as he tried to leave the country and is now in a Minneapolis halfway house, part of a closely watched experiment to spare him a long prison term and give him a role dissuading others attracted to terrorism.
The number of Americans drawn to the Islamic State remains modest, especially by comparison with the 3,000 or so who have joined the group from Europe. More than two dozen men and women have been stopped by the F.B.I. and charged before they could fly away. Social media posts and court records suggest that perhaps another two dozen have made it to the group in Syria, though even intelligence agencies do not have an exact count. At least four Americans have died fighting for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
With no clear pattern among recruits, law enforcement officials have scrambled to identify people attracted to the terror group in time to intervene — blocking their travel or potentially stopping a plot at home.
Most of the American ISIS volunteers display an earnest religious zeal, usually newfound. In an incongruous touch, several have visited malls to buy athletic gear before leaving for jihad — Mr. Nur, for instance, went to Macy’s for Nike apparel, the F.B.I. discovered.
The majority of the Islamic State recruits are men, but there are quite a few women. The volunteers include teenagers too young to drive and middle-aged adults with families and careers; petty criminals and diligent students. A substantial minority are converts to Islam, while others are the children of immigrants with roots in 10 Muslim countries.
The only cluster in the country is in Minneapolis, where two dozen young men with Somali roots departed in recent years to fight with the Shabab, the affiliate of Al Qaeda in Somalia. Now, to the distress of Somali elders, more than a dozen others have left or have tried to leave to join ISIS.
But the trickle of volunteers has come from across the country. On Tuesday, a 47-year-old Air Force veteran with a checkered work history was charged in Brooklyn with trying to join the Islamic State. Two weeks earlier, a computer-savvy 17-year-old boy in Virginia was charged with helping a man a few years older make contact with the terrorist group and get to Syria.
The cases raise a pressing question: Is the slick online propaganda that ISIS has mastered enough to lure recruits, or is face-to-face persuasion needed? A federal grand jury in Minneapolis is investigating whether an Islamic State recruiter gave Mr. Nur and Mr. Yusuf cash to buy plane tickets.
“No young person gets up one day and says, ‘I’m going to join ISIS,’ ” said Abdirizak Bihi, 50, a Somali activist who has worked against radicalization since his nephew left Minnesota in 2008 and was killed fighting for the Shabab.
“There has to be someone on the ground to listen to your problems and channel your anger,” Mr. Bihi said. “Online is like graduate studies.”

Travel Guide for Jihadists

Biographies are most complete on those caught at airports trying to leave the United States. Michael Todd Wolfe, 23, a convert to Islam from Texas with a record of assault and theft charges, for example, was stopped at the Houston airport. He had agonized over whether he would fit better with the Islamic State or the Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate.
F.B.I. agents were waiting at the Denver airport for Shannon Conley, a 19-year-old who thought she could use her skills as a nurse’s aide to help ISIS fighters. She hoped to marry a Tunisian recruiter for the Islamic State whom she had met online.
Mohammed Hamzah Khan, 19, took his younger brother and sister with him to O’Hare airport in Chicago, where agents intercepted them. He left his parents a long letter saying he could not stay in the United States because his taxes might be used to kill Muslims overseas.
Recruits have a remarkable ISIS travel guide to draw on, called “Hijrah to the Islamic State” — hijrah meaning “emigration” or “journey.” Distributed on the web since February, the 50-page book mixes Fodor’s-style advice on electrical plugs and packing — “I also advise a backpack with many small pockets” — with more tailored counsel, including the Twitter accounts of 15 men and three women with ISIS in Syria who offer guidance.
Photo
Abdi Nur in an image posted to Facebook in August. Mr. Nur, who used “DustyFeet” and other screen names, was upbeat in his early Twitter posts from Syria but later hinted at homesickness.
“Use a software to ‘hide’ all jihadi material you might be bringing,” the book warns, in flawed English. It advises travelers on what to tell suspicious officials in Turkey, the usual transit country. It comically alters a Turkish visa form to add a new checkbox for “purpose of trip”: “Commit jihad in Syria.” It advises travelers to check “tourism” instead.
For the most part, the Americans who have reached ISIS can be glimpsed only through their occasional online appearances, hidden behind screen names. Anat Agron, who studies the online trails of English-speaking foreign fighters in Syria for the Middle East Media Research Institute, said she had tracked six men and three women who credibly claimed to be Americans now with ISIS.
Ms. Agron also found a young woman who calls herself Chloe, a Muslim convert from San Francisco who appears to have married a Welsh fighter who joined the Nusra Front. Both posted pictures of their cat on Twitter, along with expressions of marital devotion. Chloe’s posts are mostly religious exclamations or lighthearted remarks about her life in Syria, including the niqab, or face veil.
“At the market being hugged by every little kid with a niqabi mother lol #niqabproblems #notyomama,” she tweeted on March 8. Another woman calling herself “Umm Jihad” posted a picture of an American passport, along with the passports of three other Western women. “Bonfire soon,” she wrote on Twitter, “no need for these anymore.”
A man posting online as Bandar al-Californi documented his preparations for hijrah in a long-running Twitter series. “I have much to do yet. Learn Arabic, save money, plan my course,” he wrote last November, adding that he was giving himself six months to leave.
“What an honor,” he tweeted to a self-described Islamic State fighter. “I hope to be in Sham soon,” he added, using a name for greater Syria. His Twitter account was suspended late last year, making it hard to say if he had succeeded.
Then there are those who encountered the violence of the Islamic State and the brutal war it is fighting. One American from Pennsylvania and three from Minnesota have died in combat with the group. Last month, when masked militants beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians on a Libyan beach, their leader spoke to the video camera in American-accented English, leading to speculation that he might have lived in the United States.
On March 2, ISIS-linked Twitter accounts claimed that a suicide truck bombing outside the Iraqi city of Samarra was carried out by “Abu Dawoud al-Amriki,” a nom de guerre that indicated he was an American. Officials say they have not been able to determine the bomber’s identity.

‘Who Brain Washed You?’

Because Mr. Nur, the Minneapolis man, is active on social media and has been charged in absentia with supporting ISIS, his story is easier to follow than most. His family declined to be interviewed. “They are devastated,” said Omar Jamal, a Somali-American activist in Minneapolis who spoke to family members. “They are afraid.” They are worried that anything they say might somehow endanger their son in Syria or relatives in Somalia, he said, in addition to attracting a hostile reaction from neighbors and co-workers.
Mr. Nur’s immigrant parents most likely did not see that by late March of last year, he was posting a quote from Anwar al-Awlaki, the late American recruiter for Al Qaeda: “We are fighting for truth and justice and you (americans/westerners) are fighting for oppression and worldly gain.”
Somehow “you” had become his fellow Americans. “We” were the jihadists. It was a few weeks after Mr. Nur and Mr. Yusuf had begun visiting a new mosque in Bloomington, outside Minneapolis. It was there that they became interested in ISIS, which was not yet associated with the videotaped beheadings of Westerners that would come later.
A passport specialist, suspicious when Mr. Yusuf applied for an expedited passport and seemed vague about its purpose, alerted the F.B.I. On May 28, agents intercepted Mr. Yusuf at the Minneapolis airport and kept him from boarding. They found that the blue Volkswagen Jetta that had dropped him off belonged to the boyfriend of Mr. Nur’s sister. But when they searched for Mr. Nur late on May 29, they learned he had left the country hours earlier.
Word that he was missing was a blow for the city’s large Somali community. “It went out like wildfire that he had left and nobody knew where he had gone,” said Abdirizak Warsame, a friend and, like Mr. Nur, a 2013 high school graduate. They had played basketball together just a few days earlier. “I had no clue,” he said.
The next day, May 30, Mr. Nur’s older sister, Ifrah, walked to the police station near the family’s apartment to report his disappearance. Over the next day or so, she managed to reach him in Turkey via messages on Facebook and an app called Kik. Their exchanges are recorded in court papers.
ISIS Recruits in the United States
Since 2013, 29 people in the United States have been charged or detained as juveniles on allegations of supporting the Islamic State, usually after trying to travel to Syria to fight for the terrorist group. Two dozen other Americans are believed to either be with the Islamic State or to have been killed in the fighting.
 
During his early months in Syria, Mr. Nur was upbeat and posted frequently online. He was teaching English (“Got a Full Class”), trading tips on handguns and pistols, expressing excitement about fighting Kurdish forces (“Never Felt So Hyped”) and praising the “amazing brothers” with him. On Aug. 7, he answered questions on the website Ask.fm, including some from angry friends in Minneapolis.
“Who brain washed you?” one asked.
Mr. Nur was unfazed. “The Words of Allah, The Quran, that’s what brain washed me,” he wrote.
But there were hints of homesickness — multiple messages about the mothers of jihadists — and his posts fell off. “Oh Mother Be Patient,” he wrote, suggesting that they would be reunited in the afterlife.

Experiment in Rehabilitation

Since then, two related dramas have unfolded in Minneapolis. The federal grand jury investigating recruitment has called many young Somalis as witnesses. According to people who have talked to him, Mr. Yusuf said he received $1,500 for his plane ticket to Turkey from a young acquaintance who claimed he got it from a local man.
Meanwhile, leaders of the Bloomington mosque, Al Farooq Youth and Family Center, have publicly accused Amir Meshal, a 31-year-old mosque volunteer, of encouraging militancy among the teens there.
“When they learned in June that this particular individual was spreading radical views, they had him banned from the premises,” said Jordan Kushner, a lawyer for the mosque. A complaint filed with the police speaks of “concerns about Meshal interacting with our youth.” Officials at a second local mosque made a similar complaint about Mr. Meshal in local media.
Mr. Meshal, an American citizen originally from New Jersey who has been involved in a long-running lawsuit against the federal government, said in a statement, “I would never suggest that anyone join ISIS or any other group that kills innocent people, nor would I provide money to do so.”
In his 2009 civil rights lawsuit, Mr. Meshal accused F.B.I. agents and other American officials of threatening him while he was imprisoned secretly for four months in 2007 in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. By his account, he was studying Islam in Somalia when fighting broke out; the government claims he got weapons training and helped translate for leaders of the Shabab.
His lawsuit was dismissed last year, though the judge called his treatment “appalling.” The case is now on appeal.
Mr. Yusuf, Mr. Nur’s co-defendant, has pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support for terrorism and faces a maximum sentence of 15 years. But in an experiment being watched nationally, Judge Michael J. Davis of Federal District Court agreed to a presentence plan to divert Mr. Yusuf to a halfway house with the support of Heartland Democracy, an education nonprofit in Minneapolis. He worked at Best Buy and attended community college until late November, when he was jailed for a time in connection with his attempt to travel to Syria. His supporters are now working with the court to get him back in classes and eventually back in a job.
The idea, said Mary McKinley, executive director of Heartland Democracy, is to gradually reintegrate Mr. Yusuf into the community, and possibly give him a role in countering the radicalization of young people.
“Ideally, Abdullahi will be able to tell his story in a way that is useful to young people who are frustrated and disengaged,” Ms. McKinley said. His lawyer, Jean M. Brandl, said her client was not prepared to speak publicly.
Federal prosecutors opposed giving Mr. Yusuf a break, noting that he had lied to F.B.I. agents at the airport. But Judge Davis, who knows the Somali community well enough to ask about clans and sub-clans, went along with the plan, intended to reduce the chasm between Somalis and law enforcement officials. Parents and friends concerned about a young person drawn to the Islamic State are more likely to call the police, advocates say, if they believe there is an alternative to a long prison sentence.
Meanwhile, in Syria, Mr. Nur, or someone using his account, still occasionally posts on Twitter. If he has regrets, he does not acknowledge them. In January, he praised the two gunmen who attacked a satirical newspaper in Paris: “Well well well done Iqwah,” or brothers, he wrote. On March 2, he posted a photograph of Beretta handguns, adding: “How Sweet Does That Look.”
His most recent post came on March 8. “All Warfare,” he wrote, “Is Based on Deception.”

PHOTOS: Local Cops Bond With Somali Children At Soccer Game | windsoriteDOTca News - windsor ontario's neighbourhood newspaper windsoriteDOTca News

PHOTOS: Local Cops Bond With Somali Children At Soccer Game | windsoriteDOTca News - windsor ontario's neighbourhood newspaper windsoriteDOTca News

The Somali Community of Windsor hosted their 2nd Annual Soccer Tournament with local law enforcement agencies, Friday night at the Novelletto Rosati Sports Complex in West Windsor.
The premise of the event was to give children an opportunity to interact with local law enforcement officers in an informal and fun way with the goal of relationship building, organizers said, in an effort to lead youth away from negative sterotypes about police, issues with authority, and the path of extremism.
Both boys and girls played matches before speeches, awards and, at the end of the night, a law enforcement versus community soccer game.
Local officers from organizations including the RCMP, Windsor Police, OPP, CBSA, and Public Safety Canada participated.