As a spoken word artist, Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame liked to talk to other young Somalis about following their dreams. In a video posted online in 2011, the teenager stands at a microphone and encourages teens to stay focused on their goals in life.
“You guys are tomorrow. And all you have to have, to get anywhere you want, is determination,” said Warsame, who was active in a local arts group, was a regular at a neighborhood center, and whose mother and cousin were leading voices against radical recruitment in Minneapolis’ large Somali community.
In recent years, about three dozen young men from Somali neighborhoods in Minnesota have left to join militant groups fighting in Somalia and Syria, making the area one of the leading sources of US recruits for radical Islam.
Local leaders have launched a major effort to stop the flow by building up positive influences on the thousands of young Somalis in the area. And in many ways, Warsame seemed to embody the key points: hopeful attitude, engaged in the community, with strong family support.
But Warsame’s case, rather than a positive example, has become a cautionary tale. Standing in jail-issue clothing before a federal judge in Minneapolis earlier this year, the tall young man, who is now 21, hung his head as he admitted to secretly planning with friends in 2014 to go to Syria to fight with ISIS. He now faces up to 15 years in prison.
Despite everyone’s best efforts, “I was always listening to one side,” he said at a court hearing, referring to radical messages he saw online. “I didn’t see the other side of it, that innocent people were being killed.”
By the time he realized his mistake, “it was too late,” said Farhio Khalif, a leader of a community task force that is working with the US attorney’s office on anti-recruitment strategies. “He was already caught up.”
More must be done to convince children “there is opportunity and there is hope in this community,” Khalif said.
Minnesota’s Somali population, the US’ largest, numbers 41,000, according to census estimates, though community advocates say it is much larger. They have been drawn here over the years by welcoming social programs.
After local recruits began leaving for the war zones about 10 years ago, the then-head of the FBI appeared on Somali radio and television programs to counter the radical messages luring them. Somali community groups have held regular meetings to raise awareness about the recruitment threat. A group called Ka Joog, which is Somali for “stay away,” sponsored activities that give kids a sense of belonging in America.
In this December, 2015 photo provided by the Anoka County, Minnesota, Sheriff shows Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame, 20, of Eagan, Minnesota. Warsame was charged Dec. 10, 2015 with conspiracy to support Islamic State for allegedly trying to help other young men from Minnesota's Somali community travel to Syria to fight for the IS. (Anoka County Sheriff via AP,File)
Last year, in the largest effort, organizers secured $850,000 for an ambitious package of projects, including a new job center in the Somali community where unemployment hovers around 19 percent, about three times the state average.
A leading target of the effort is “Little Mogadishu,” where Warsame grew up. The neighborhood is marked by the massive 1970s-era concrete towers looming at its center, and dotted with Somali restaurants, shops and cultural centers.
Warsame, who goes by Zak or A-Zak, came to the US with his family when he was 10 months old, the second of eight children. In his teens, Warsame found poetry as a way to express himself. He joined a group called Poet Nation and posted videos on YouTube.
In one that features his old neighborhood, Warsame, wearing a Minnesota Twins hat, raps about violence after a friend was shot. He says he doesn't preach violence, and gives “much love to the projects,” where gang-related shootings were a threat.
Bob Fletcher, a former Ramsey County sheriff who founded the Center For Somalia History Studies, saw Warsame as a typical inner-city teenager struggling with identity.
“He was one of those kids that could’ve gone either way,” Fletcher said. “To the gangs, to the radicalization, or to succeed academically with the circle of Ka Joog kids who he is close to.”
Warsame had work and school opportunities after high school. He worked as a baggage handler and for a deicing company at the airport and attended community college.
His mother, Deqa Hussen, was vigilant about radical influences. At one point, concerned about some of his companions, she sent him to live with his father in Chicago in 2014.
Two months before her son’s December arrest, she lectured Somali parents at a town hall meeting: “I need you guys to wake up and to tell your child, ‘Who’s recruiting you?’ Ask what happened. .... We have to stop the denial thing that we have, and we have to talk to our kids and work with the FBI.”
But at his plea hearing, Warsame told the judge he was already in thrall to Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical Islamic cleric killed in Yemen in 2011, listening to his lectures on the internet and watching videos of beheadings.
He said he came to believe his duty as a devout Muslim was to take up arms against non-Muslims.
“I think he found himself surrounded by very angry young people,” said Abdirizak Bihi, a community activist.
Said his mother after his guilty plea, “I didn’t know. It hurts me even hearing it now.”
The federal judge overseeing Minnesota terrorism cases, Michael Davis, offered Warsame a spot in a new program that assesses a defendant’s prospects for deradicalization before sentencing.
Some community members say they hope the young man can return to the community.
As a poet with a charismatic personality, said Bihi, the community activist, “I can envision him going to schools, talking to young people in the community, going to mosques, working with imams. His message here could resonate in many communities.”