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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 Burnsville, Minnesota. by Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT


By Star Tribune (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. There is no marker. Only dirt and small rocks cover the final resting place of Shirwa Ahmed, who lived most of his life almost as anonymously.


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 Sept. 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 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 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. There Ahmed, only a few years removed from a refugee camp, honed his English skills and took steps toward U.S. citizenship.


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


"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 Brian Coyle Community Center in the shadows of the Cedar-Riverside high rises.


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 Camp Snoopy. When they saw one they considered pretty, they'd dare each other to try to get her phone number.


"The ultimate goal was to see who could collect (the most) numbers," said one of his closest friends, who is now a Minneapolis businessman and spoke on the condition that he not be named. "But Shirwa could never do it. He was shy. He'd say 'That's a kid's game.' "


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 Roosevelt in 2000, Ahmed made a new friend while working 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 Warsame were both enrolled at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park that year, but when Warsame quit before the end of the first semester, the two began to drift apart. As Warsame hit the party scene, Ahmed turned to the mosque.


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 University of Minnesota. Later, he took courses at Minneapolis Community and Technical College but didn't stick with it.


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 Minneapolis, the city's largest mosque.


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 Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to perform the hajj, the sacred pilgrimage for Muslims.


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 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 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 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.


Somali officials and U.S. diplomats immediately blamed the blasts on al-Shabaab - which means "the youth" - a group that U.S. officials have labeled a terrorist organization aligned with al-Qaida. 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. Leaders of al-Shabaab had promised to keep fighting until all Ethiopian troops left Somalia.


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 Nairobi, Kenya.


"They wanted to convey an image that they could reach anywhere," then-Somali foreign minister Ali Ahmed Jama told Reuters.


Their reach extended to Minneapolis.


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 Somalia? Was it something he read? Was it someone he met? Was he, as some in the Somali community believe, a victim, and not the bomber? Or had he changed so completely that those who knew him best will never understand?


"Even through my own life changes, I'm still the same Nicole that he met in 1999," Hartford said recently. "I know deep down he was the same Shirwa. What happened after we went our separate ways, I'm not for sure. But I know Shirwa was not a violent person. Shirwa was a respectful person, he was honest and he conducted himself in that manner.


"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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