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Terror allegations rile Boston's Somali immigrants

Say efforts aren't being conducted in Hub

Sixteen-year-old Farah Musa said recruitment of Somali youth as terrorists could not happen in the Hub: ''That's not Boston. That's not my city.'' Sixteen-year-old Farah Musa said recruitment of Somali youth as terrorists could not happen in the Hub: ''That's not Boston. That's not my city.'' (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / March 13, 2009
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The social hub for Somali immigrants is a little coffee shop wedged between a T station and the transit police at Roxbury Crossing. Everyone seems to know everyone else's name, where they work, and where their children work. "Cousin!" the owner greets customers, whether they are related or not.

Yesterday, the tight circle at Butterfly Coffee was shaken by assertions before a Senate panel Wednesday that a radical Islamic group linked to Al Qaeda might be recruiting youths in Boston to fight in Somalia. Immigrants said they are worried about such recruitment nationwide, but they were angered that a Somali leader from another state had put Boston's com munity in a harsh national spotlight without providing hard evidence.

"In Boston? It's impossible," said Abraham Ahmad, a realtor and Somali immigrant who sat with a group of men for his morning coffee. "We would report it as soon as possible."

Concern over recruitment has intensified in recent months, particularly in Minnesota, where several young men have disappeared and where one man is believed to be the first Somali-born US citizen to become a suicide bomber, after he blew himself up in Somalia in October.

On Wednesday, top US law enforcement and intelligence officials told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security that a small number of Somali-Americans from several US cities have traveled to Somalia since 2006 to fight with Al-Shabaab, which was declared a terrorist organization by the State Department last year.

Officials do not believe it is widespread among the more than 150,000 Somali-Americans, including 5,000 in Massachusetts, but said it is troubling because insurgents could be trained and return to engage in terrorist activities in the United States.

A Somali leader from another state, Osman Ahmed, told the committee that task forces to reach out to Somalis should be set up in Minneapolis, Seattle, Columbus, Ohio, and Boston to prevent such recruitment. Yesterday, he said he launched a nationwide investigation last fall, after his own nephew left for Somalia, possibly to be with Al-Shabaab, and was told by friends that two youths had also disappeared in Boston.

Ahmed urged Boston-area families to come forward if their children are missing. "We need to work together," he said.

For some Somali-Americans, the Senate testimony resurrected memories about the fear and rejection many of them faced after they arrived in New England.

In 2002, the Holyoke City Council voted to oppose a plan to resettle Somali refugees there, contending the city could not afford the burden on schools and other services. That same year, the mayor of Lewiston, Maine, urged Somali refugees to stop coming to his city because he said they were a drain on services.

But in recent years, like other immigrant groups, Somalis have learned English, gone to college, become business owners and bankers, as well as parking garage attendants and taxi drivers. In Boston, they are increasingly US citizens who are concerned as much with homeownership, getting into public office, and jury duty as with their families back home.

They even hire native-born Americans, one customer pointed out, noting that all the counter help in the Somali-owned Butterfly Coffee are white college students who take orders from non-English speaking immigrants using makeshift sign language.

Two months ago, local Somali leaders promised the FBI at a meeting in the Muslim community's new mosque across the street from the coffee shop that they would watch for any signs that radicals were recruiting local youths, but knew of no such activity.

"The FBI told us to watch out," 63-year-old Hassan Dahir, a father of six, all of whom went to college, said through a translator yesterday. "We all told the kids you just have to be a good citizen. . . . They don't want to be in a war."

Yesterday, a group of elders at Butterfly Coffee cornered a Somali teenager, Farah Musa, who dropped by after class ended at English High School. He was born in a Kenyan refugee camp and raised in America.

He said he had not heard of any recruitment.

"That's not Boston," said Musa, 16, shaking his head under a Bruins cap. "That's not my city."

For Somali immigrants, much is at stake in America. Their good standing is literally helping them save lives back home: Immigrants send up to $1 billion a year home in remittances - including from a kiosk inside Butterfly Coffee - to a Horn of Africa nation wracked by war and vast unemployment.

The money is used to treat malaria, feed dozens of friends and relatives, and put roofs over grandparents' heads.

"If I wasn't here, there's no life in Somalia," said Abdillahi Abdirahman, the coffee shop owner.

Like the others, he is worried about what Al-Shabaab's recruiting efforts could do to his Somali-American communities, whether they are in Boston or not.

"One bad apple [in Massachusetts] could destroy the whole thing that we've built," he said.

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