Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The making of a Somali Minnesota suicide bomber

Shirwa Ahmed

He was once a shy young man who liked basketball, hip-hop and girls. Years later he drove a truck full of explosives into a crowd in Somalia, leaving only grief and questions behind.

Minneapolis. St. Paul, Minnesota

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

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 9/11.

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."

A startling discovery

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 

Shirwa's journey


Shirwa Ahmed's family comes to the United States. He is 12 or 13 years old. They first come to Portland, Ore., then to Minneapolis.


He's a sophomore at Minneapolis Roosevelt High School. Mohammed Osman taught Ahmed. "He was very ordinary. ... He was not violent, a very decent character. He was unremarkable."


He graduates from high school. He goes to prom with Nicole Hartford. He dances and he was a little awkward at it but he kept the rhythm, Nicole said. When the photographer asked him to put his arms around Nicole's waist, Shirwa demurred. "I kept saying 'It's OK, Shirwa,' " Nicole said.


He attends classes at North Hennepin Community College. He does not earn a certificate or degree. Friends say he is becoming more religious.


He enrolls at the University of Minnesota's College of Continuing Education. He lasts one semester.


Nicole Hartford talks to Ahmed less, and eventually loses contact with him. The last time she saw him, she said: "He hugged me. It was a long hug. ... There was some pain in him that he wasn't ready to speak about at that time."


He attends Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Again, he does not earn a certificate or degree. Family and friends say he spends early mornings and even overnights at the Abubakar as-Saddique mosque.


He leaves the country in the fall. His sister said that Ahmed told the family he was going to the hajj in Saudi Arabia. He later calls to tell her he is studying in Yemen.

OCT. 29, 2008

Ahmed dies in Puntland in northern Somalia in a suicide attack.


The FBI helps the family return the remains of Ahmed to the U.S.

DEC. 3, 2008

He is buried in a Burnsville cemetery.

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