From Minnesota teen to suicide bomber in Somalia.

Halkaan ka akhri

May 23, 2009

MINNEAPOLIS — His remains lie a few hundred yards from a bustling highway, in a section of the Burnsville cemetery reserved for Muslims called the Garden of Eden. Only dirt and small rocks cover the final resting place of Shirwa Ahmed. But the manner of the 26-year-old Minneapolis man’s death has put him at the center of one of the most far-reaching U.S. counterterrorism investigations since 9/11.

Nobody knows for sure why Ahmed left Minnesota in late 2007 — or how he wound up obliterated in a bomb crater in Somalia a year later.

Did the once passive teenager who came of age at Roosevelt High School shooting hoops, wearing hip-hop fashions and hanging out at the Mall of America volunteer for al-Shabaab, an affiliate of al-Qaida? Did his self-described transformation into a “God man” lead him to return to fight in his homeland’s civil war, or become a recruit for jihad? Most frightening, was he or any other Somali ever a candidate to return home and strike within the United States?

So far, more than two dozen local Somalis have been subpoenaed to tell a grand jury in Minneapolis what they know of Ahmed and up to 20 other missing men.

While the community anxiously awaits the investigation’s outcome, those who knew Ahmed are left to wonder.

“I don’t know where things went wrong, but to be honest with you, I wish I could find out myself,” said Sahal Warsame, his high school best friend. “And if he was still alive, I’d probably ask him why and how. . . . I know he didn’t put himself in that situation.” At midmorning on Oct. 29, 2008, a car packed with explosives smashed through the doors of the Ethiopian Embassy in Hargeisa, capital of the breakaway region of Somaliland, killing 20 people. At the same time, other suicide bombers hit targets across northern Somalia, including two bomb-filled vehicles that plowed into an intelligence headquarters in the port town of Bosasso.

In all, 28 people were killed. Within hours, Somali officials asked the FBI to send teams to comb the blast sites.

In Bosasso, investigators were surprised to discover the fragmented remains of an American. They had found what was left of Shirwa Ahmed.

Days later and a world away in Minneapolis, Nimco Ahmed glanced at the newspaper and was stunned to see a familiar face.

She immediately called a mutual friend, Nicole Hartford, who had been Shirwa Ahmed’s high school prom date eight years earlier.

“Are you positive it’s him?” Hartford asked.

She was. But it was hard to reconcile the person she knew with the person she was reading about.

It had been about 10 years since a skinny and quiet 15-year-old Shirwa Ahmed, raised by a single mom and living with three brothers and a sister, first showed up at Roosevelt High School, where many Somali immigrants attended.

Repeated attempts to reach Ahmed’s relatives were unsuccessful. But a teacher at Roosevelt recalls that Ahmed didn’t distinguish himself as a student.

Where Ahmed excelled was at making friends. Afternoons were for pickup basketball at one of several parks near the school or at the Brian Coyle Community Center in the shadows of the Cedar-Riverside high-rises, where thousands of Somali immigrants live. Weekends were for girls.

Ahmed took a job pushing wheelchairs and moving luggage at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. After graduating from Roosevelt in 2000, he made a new friend at the airport, Russell Burge. Burge sometimes prayed with Ahmed and other Somalis working at the airport, and the two often talked about religion.

Burge recalled that they once had a conversation about suicide bombings, and both agreed that such attacks are wrong.

“He was very, very adamant, saying, ‘No, that is not Islamic. The Prophet Muhammad would frown upon a Muslim who does that,'” Burge recalled.

By 2002, Ahmed’s commitment to his faith was growing deeper. He and high school friend Warsame were both enrolled at North Hennepin Community College that year, but when Warsame quit before the end of the first semester, the two began to drift apart.

Sometimes, Warsame said, Ahmed would talk to him about making a change.

“He just used to encourage me to just pray and do good and think about life,” he said.

Others began noticing changes that reflected an increasingly conservative approach to his faith. Ahmed grew a beard. He gained weight. He wore a kufi — a Muslim prayer cap — and traded his baggy jeans for pants cuffed above the ankle. The guy who once crammed himself with two female friends into a photo booth would no longer shake hands when he met a woman.

In fall 2007, Ahmed went to a clinic to get shots in advance of a trip to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to perform the hajj, the sacred pilgrimage for Muslims. He was traveling with a group and was excited about the trip, he told a friend at the clinic. He didn’t say anything about Somalia.

About the same time he left, three other Somali men from the Twin Cities — Zackaria Marout, Mohamed Miski and Kamal Baniini — disappeared, presumably overseas.

The timing of their departures, and the fact that the men knew one another, would later prompt federal agents to investigate whether they were radicalized and recruited to return to Somalia by someone working with a terrorist group.

There would be no more news regarding Ahmed until many months later. In late 2008, while chatting on Facebook with one of Shirwa Ahmed’s relatives overseas, friend Nimco Ahmed asked how he was doing. The relative told her that Ahmed had gone to the Middle East to study Islam and didn’t intend to return to this country.

In late October, 2008, Ahmed’s sister in Minneapolis got a phone call from her brother, who said he was in Yemen. He was planning to come home, according to Abdirizak Bihi, a community leader who spoke with the sister at length a few days after Ahmed’s death.

Then, on Oct. 29, came the bomb blasts that rocked northern Somalia. Al-Shabaab had been involved in frequent attacks against the interim Somali government and the thousands of Ethiopian troops that occupied the country after the ouster of its Islamic government in early 2007.

A few days after the blasts, Ahmed’s sister received another phone call, according to Bihi.

A voice she didn’t recognize told her: “Your brother is a martyr. He is in paradise.”

Sourse Richmond Times-Dispatch

SomaliSwiss@hotmail.com

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