TORONTO, 12 December 2009 (Somalilandpress) – They hung out at a Somali restaurant in “Little Mogadishu” in the northwest corner of the city, played basketball together, and worshipped at a North York mosque.
The five friends, in their early to mid-20s, grew up and attended schools in Toronto. They spoke English and Somali. At least two of them were university students.
That is, until all five disappeared.
No one recalls them ever causing trouble. But the Star has learned Canadian intelligence officials were watching at least one of the young men several months before he mysteriously left home.
Mahad Dhorre, Mustafa Mohamed, Mohamed Abscir and a fourth we know only as Ahmed vanished the first week of November. A fifth, Ahmed Elmi, left his home in Scarborough about three months ago. A sixth man, an Afghan, who worshipped at the same mosque, is also reportedly missing.
Their passports are missing and they haven’t called home. The overwhelming fear is that – like at least 20 young Somali-American men in Minneapolis who have disappeared in the past two years, and others from Australia, Sweden and Britain – the young men are en route to Somalia to fight alongside al Shabaab, an Islamist youth militia aligned with Al Qaeda.
The Shabaab, which is fighting the government, is often called Somalia’s Taliban. Its increasingly savvy online presence is being blamed as a possible reason for the disappearance of the five Canadians. And Somali community leaders fear other young people will be targeted as long as they feel alienated in this country, and embraced by another.
“These people can speak in their language and lure them from right under our nose,” said Ahmed Hussen, the Ottawa-based president of the Canadian Somali Congress, adding people in the community have told him chat rooms were also used to lure the missing men. “We won’t even know what’s going on.”
THE FIRST Somali-Canadian to leave the country was Ahmed Elmi. The 22-year-old vanished in early September. A month later, friends say, he called his parents and told them he was in Kismayo, a port city in southern Somalia where the Shabaab has ruled for more than a year.
Those who knew Elmi wonder how a boy who grew up in a quiet Scarborough community would flee to a city plagued by violence.
Elmi’s soft-spoken father said the family is still in shock and trying to understand what happened. He declined to be interviewed.
RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service officers are investigating the disappearances, canvassing areas in Little Mogadishu and questioning families.
But six months ago, CSIS agents paid a visit to the Scarborough condominium complex where another of the missing men, Mustafa Mohamed, lived with his family, says the building’s property manager.
“They said there was some kind of suspicious Internet activity and the family was under surveillance,” said Raees Akhtar.
On the second floor of the building, Mohamed’s mother, Shukri, was too distraught to talk. “I’m not ready …,” she said from behind the closed door of her apartment.
A friend said the family hadn’t heard from Mohamed. “(Shukri) is very upset,” she said. “She doesn’t know what to do … She has other younger children, too, and she’s worried about them.”
During questioning, RCMP officers have shown photographs to the families and queried them about their sons’ activities.
“(The families) are just as bewildered … they are also looking for answers,” said Abdurahman Hosh Jibril, president of the Somali Canadian National Council.
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MAHAD DHORRE was only about 6 when he left Somalia. He and his adoptive mother spent about four years in a refugee camp before they arrived in Canada in the mid-1990s, friends say.
His father died in Somalia; his biological mother still lives there.
The gangly, bearded youth from Markham grew up playing basketball, watching baseball and dreamed of going to university.
“He liked going to the mosque but there was nothing radical about him,” said Yusuf Arshame, a friend who has known Dhorre for years.
Dhorre was studying math and history at York University when he decided to take a break this summer. He started working at the bookstore at Abu Huraira Islamic Centre, the mosque in North York where the five hung out.
Arshame says Dhorre began socializing less and spending more time at the mosque. In October, Dhorre flew to Nairobi with his mother. Days later, he disappeared.
Abdul Warsame, a youth leader in the community, first met Dhorre at a conference this summer. “He was smart and funny,” recalls Warsame. “One of the first things he said was `I know most of you think we (from the city’s east end) are uptight. But we are not different.’ That’s the kind of a guy he was – always speaking his mind.”
They quickly became friends. He last saw Dhorre during Ramadan, then weeks later he went missing.
OF THE 20 or so Somali-Americans who have gone missing, at least five have been killed in Somalia. One died in a suicide bombing in October 2008, part of coordinated attacks that killed 20 people.
Osman Ahmed’s nephew, Bashir Hasan, vanished more than a year ago, resurfacing in southern Somalia. He died three months ago.
“He was 17 … he was naive,” said
Ahmed, a Minneapolis-based businessman. Three months before Hasan disappeared in November 2008, he was filling out university applications, planning his future as a lawyer. “And suddenly, he was gone,” said Ahmed, who believes his nephew was enticed by the Shabaab over the Internet.
Days before he died, Hasan called his mother and told her he wanted to come home. “And then, we got a call saying he was dead,” said Ahmed, who believes Shabaab executed him. “You only leave as a martyr … there’s no other way out.”
His is one of the few Minneapolis families to speak publicly about their loss. “We’ve lost as a family, we didn’t want to lose more as a community,” said Ahmed.
But it hasn’t stopped other young Somali-Americans from trying to join the Shabaab. About two weeks ago, four young men, two under the age of 16, were stopped while trying to fly to Kenya through Chicago.
Two days earlier, U.S. federal officials announced terrorism charges against eight men, seven of whom are still at large. It brought to 14 the total from Minneapolis who have been indicted or pleaded guilty for allegedly indoctrinating, recruiting or training local youths to join militia-waged war in Somalia.
Omar Jamal, a well-known advocate for the Somali diaspora in the U.S., said Toronto community leaders must ensure mosques play no role in radicalization. “We have to do everything to keep our kids safe. … We can’t let them go to a place we left years ago.”
In Minneapolis, some families of missing men have accused certain mosques of radicalizing their sons.
In Toronto, the North York mosque where the five Toronto men worshipped has come under scrutiny since they disappeared.
The Abu Huraira mosque, located in a nondescript building in an industrial area near Sheppard Ave. and Highway 404, was the first to alert police that the men were missing. “The parents came to us and we immediately told (police),” said administrator Omar Kireh.
He stressed the men only “occasionally worshipped at the mosque over the years,” adding the mosque has no hardline agenda. The mosque, with a congregation of about 1,000 mostly Somali-Canadians, holds classes for youth, he said, where they are encouraged to stay out of gangs and guns.
It became the subject of controversy a couple of months ago when Saed Rageah, the mosque’s charismatic young imam, gave a controversial sermon interpreted by some as an attack on those calling for a ban on the niqab and burqa.
Rageah later said he had been misinterpreted. The Star could not reach him for comment.
Members of the congregation, however, describe Rageah as traditional, but not radical. And the Somali community believes the mosque had nothing to do with the disappearance of the men, although some suspect they may have been targeted there.
“It’s not a coincidence that all worshipped here and disappeared at almost the same time,” said Ahmed Yusuf, a Somali-Canadian social worker. “The question is how, and can it be done again.”
THAT BOTHERS many Somali-Canadians in Toronto.
There are stories of how mothers have hidden their grown-up sons’ passports while other family members keep an eye on them. Some mothers are even trying to monitor their sons’ Internet activities.
It sounds over-the-top but Jibril said, “It’s an extraordinary situation.” There’s a fear there may be an exodus of more young men from Toronto as happened in Minneapolis, he said. Toronto is now home to almost 50,000 Somali-Canadians, he points out.
In Little Mogadishu, an area bounded by highrises along Dixon Rd. and between Kipling and Islington Aves., families run thriving restaurants and grocery stores. Yet Somalis remain one of the GTA’s most disadvantaged, scoring near the bottom in household income, employment and education.
Mohamed Gilao, executive director of Dejinta Beesha, a settlement agency, said young people find it difficult to integrate; some drop out of school and fall prey to crime, drugs and gangs. And now, it seems, radicals, too.
But the five missing men were raised in middle-class families and none had a run-in with police, say community leaders.
Warsame, the youth leader, talks of the crisis of “belonging” that plagues all young people from war-torn countries, especially if they still have relatives there.
Most Somali-Canadians still have families in that country and faithfully keep track of events there. Many send money back, ensuring the bond never severs.
“I’m not making any excuses (for Mahad Dhorre) and others,” said Warsame. “But these kids wonder about equality and justice when they see war, hunger and violence in their native country. Is that what drives them? I don’t know.”