The making of an American suicide bomber
By Richard Meryhew, Allie Shah and James Walsh
2009-05-12 01:23 AM
A simple Islamic arch in silhouette is near the grave where
Shirwa Ahmed is buried at the Garden of Eden Cemetery in
By Star Tribune (
His remains lie a few hundred yards from a bustling highway,
in a section of the
But the manner of the 26-year-old
Nobody knows for sure why Ahmed left
So far, more than two dozen local Somalis have been
subpoenaed to tell a grand jury in
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
In all, 28 people were killed and dozens more injured. 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
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?"
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
Repeated attempts to reach Ahmed's relatives were
unsuccessful. But a teacher at
"He was not high in grades and not low in grades. He was average," said Mohammed Osman, who taught social studies. "He was very respectful to me as a teacher."
Where Ahmed excelled was at making friends.
Afternoons were for pickup basketball at one of several
parks near the school or at the
Weekends were for girls.
Often, Ahmed and friends would hop the bus to the Mall of
America, where they'd gather on the top floor near the movie theaters to scope
out the girls four floors below in
"The ultimate goal was to see who could collect (the
most) numbers," said one of his closest friends, who is now a
After Ahmed took a job pushing wheelchairs and moving luggage at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, he met and became fast friends with Hartford, who worked at a couple of restaurants there. They spent their breaks together, along with Nimco Ahmed, the high school friend who also worked at the airport. The three became inseparable, often heading to the megamall after work to try on clothes and people watch.
While often quiet, he was not afraid of asserting himself.
Once, after opponents started trash-talking his friend Warsame during a pickup basketball game, Ahmed stepped in to stop the quarrel.
"He grabbed my hand and said 'No man, you'd rather walk away from this before you see a cop,' " Warsame said.
After graduating from
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 Warsame were both enrolled at
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.
As his religious commitment grew firmer, Ahmed's attachment
to schooling became more tenuous. His stint at North Hennepin was followed by a
semester at the
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 had once crammed himself with two female friends into a photo booth to mug for the camera would no longer shake hands when he met a woman.
Nimco Ahmed said she saw him occasionally on the street and in Somali malls preaching to other Somalis and encouraging them to pray.
When another high school friend saw him at a playground near Cedar-Riverside in 2005, Ahmed told him he had become "a God man."
"He was becoming sort of like a monk," the friend said.
Ahmed worshipped at the mosque five times daily, even in the
pre-dawn. Most days, he attended a small mosque near the Cedar-Riverside
towers, home to thousands of Somalis. Increasingly, he'd pray at Abubakar
as-Saddique Islamic Center in south
Farhan (Omar) Hurre, Abubakar's director, said Ahmed has been seen praying at the mosque "a few times."
Said another high school friend, who remained in touch with Ahmed until shortly before he left the country: "He never preached or tried to change me. He would just say that he would pray for me."
In the fall of 2007, Ahmed went to a clinic to get shots in
advance of a trip to
While there, he ran into Zuhur Ahmed, a former schoolmate who worked at the clinic.
He was traveling with a group and was excited about the
trip, he told her. He didn't say anything about
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 all 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, Nimco Ahmed asked how he was doing.
The relative told her that Ahmed had gone to the
In late October, 2008, Ahmed's sister in
Then, on Oct. 29, came the bomb blasts that rocked northern
Somali officials and
The timing of this attack, Somali officials said, was likely
meant to coincide with a meeting between Somali government leaders and the
leaders of other regional heads of state in
"They wanted to convey an image that they could reach anywhere," then-Somali foreign minister Ali Ahmed Jama told Reuters.
Their reach extended to
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."
On a sunny, cold day last December, Shirwa Ahmed's remains were carried from the hearse to his waiting grave site in a small wooden box.
As several men removed a white shroud containing his remains from the box, a crowd of about 20 men circled the grave. Behind them, 20 to 30 women stood by cars parked on a nearby road.
The women watched as the men lowered the remains into the ground, grabbed shovels and covered the grave with dirt. Nearby, a cemetery worker stood near a tractor, waiting to finish the job.
Nicole Hartford wasn't there to witness the end. Months later, she's still haunted by questions.
What prompted her friend to go back to
"Even through my own life changes, I'm still the same
Nicole that he met in 1999,"
"I can't see it. I can't see him taking that action. Honestly, I'm like 'Somebody drugged him. Somebody tricked him.' Something happened. Something went devastatingly wrong."
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