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MN Somalis may have sought to join Syrian rebels, FBI says

MINNEAPOLIS — Young Somalis from Minnesota may have tried to travel to Syria to join the civil war against the government there, the FBI said Tuesday.

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Investigators are looking into the extent of the matter, said Kyle A. Loven, a spokesman for the FBI in Minneapolis.

“Information recently came to our attention which indicated ... the ultimate goal of joining with rebel forces in Syria to fight against the Assad regime,” Loven said.

Opposition forces in Syria, including some suspected extremist factions, have been fighting the government of President Bashar Assad for more than three years. The civil war has drawn thousands of foreign fighters, by some estimates — including those with ties to al-Qaida and other militant Islamist groups.

Loven declined to say how many people may have traveled there from Minnesota, when the migration might have happened or whether anyone is in custody. The investigation is active, he said.

The FBI posted a request on its Minneapolis website Tuesday afternoon asking for information about anyone who has been recruited, planned to travel or already traveled abroad to fight. The Minneapolis office is the only FBI office nationwide that posted the public request.

Anyone with information can submit anonymous tips online or call (763) 569-8020.

Teenagers and young adults are generally most at risk, Loven said. He said they’re often coerced by recruiters or influenced by online propaganda.

The FBI is “actively engaged” with Somali leaders here to get a handle on the issue and reach out to at-risk individuals in the large East African community, he said.

It’s against federal law for U.S. citizens to take up arms in foreign conflicts, Loven said.

The matter echoes the recruitment of young men from Minnesota by al-Shabaab, an Islamist terrorist organization in Somalia. Nearly two dozen men have left Minnesota over the past seven years to fight for the group, leading to federal court cases against those accused of traveling and those accused of helping them.

The concerns about Syria come about a week after an American from Vero Beach, Fla., carried out a suicide bombing against Syrian government troops in the city of Idlib. Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha is believed to be the first U.S. citizen involved in a suicide bombing in Syria’s civil war.

A report by a private security company, the Soufan Group, said about 70 fighters from the U.S. have traveled to Syria, citing an FBI statement from May.

Early last month, FBI Director James Comey said dozens of Americans were among the growing number of foreign fighters who joined the Syrian conflict in recent months. Investigators have expressed concern these fighters could become radicalized by jihadists, and bring those influences back home.

The study’s author, Richard Barrett, a former British intelligence official and U.N. specialist on al-Qaida, wrote that leaders of groups that attract most foreign fighters — al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria — were previously members of al-Qaida.

In the Twin Cities, Somali community activist Abdirizak Bihi said local Somalis have been talking about the Syrian conflict in recent days. He’s worried a radical element is trying to create a new pipeline of violence.

“We are very concerned about this summer,” Bihi told The Associated Press. “People are shocked. They used to talk about kids leaving from Europe (for Syria); now they started talking about here. … It’s insane.”

Bihi said young Somali men here can be vulnerable to terrorist recruiting because there are limited employment prospects and few intervention programs and because they feel like outsiders.

Mohamud Noor, interim executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, noted that FBI officials met with him and other local community leaders Tuesday to discuss the matter.

“I think they’re doing a good job, in terms of being proactive,” Noor said of the agency’s response. “They didn’t share specifics, in terms of credible evidence; that was not something that they shared with us.”

Omar Jamal, another activist in the community, said the same radical interpretation of Islam that drew people to al-Shabaab is behind the Syrian recruitment.

“The underlying message is the same,” he said.