Writer/Producer/Director: Fathia Absie
In 2008 and 2009, about 20 Somali youth began disappearing from the state of Minnesota. Burhan Hassan, 17, was the youngest and, perhaps, a bright young man, who had dreams of attending Harvard.
Thus is the way “Broken Dreams”, a documentary about the exodus of Somali youth for jihad, gets underway.
To the parents of these youth, it was a painful and tortuous period that saw many sleepless nights, a great deal of introspection, and a collective outcry against what they regarded as the ‘recruitment and the misleading of their sons’ by adults who were hiding behind religious masks. To the Somali community in Minnesota and elsewhere around the country, the case brought unwanted attention to them from the U.S government. Following the disappearances, the FBI launched the largest US counterterrorism investigation since the 9-11 tragedy. Ralph S. Boelter, then the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Minneapolis office, which also was leading the investigation, told The New York Times (7/11/09), “This case is unlike anything we have encountered.” FBI Director Robert Mueller stated, after one of the Minnesota youths committed a suicide bombing in northern Somalia, that the young man “was radicalized in his hometown in Minnesota.” In January 2009, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin warning that Al-Shabab militants were planning to carry out an attack in America. The warning turned out to be false but fear of Al-Shabab attack was real.
In 2006, after 16 years of warlordism and banditry in southern Somalia, the Union of Islamic Courts came to power in Mogadishu. For six months, the Somali capital saw a precipitous decline of banditry and chaos. But the Islamic organization was a collage of groups, some moderate and others much more extreme, as in the case of Al-Shabab. Ethiopia, with the help of the United States, invaded Somalia to crush the nascent Islamic movement. It was during this time when former American president George W. Bush saw the world in the prism of terrorism. The Chairman of the Islamic Courts Union was none other than Sheikh Sharif Sh. Ahmed, now Somalia’s president. Sheikh Sharif called for jihad against the Ethiopian invaders, which caused him to flee –at least temporarily- Mogadishu. Many Somalis, from various backgrounds, were incensed with the foreign occupation of Somalia. Some young men in Minnesota apparently heard the call to jihad emanating from southern Somalia and went there to fight against the Ethiopians and their Somali allies. There was one problem; Al-Shabab, which was the only effective group fighting the Ethiopians, was on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. It is illegal in the USA to train, fight, and provide material support to a terrorist organization.
What happened to these youth? How did they end up in Somalia? Did someone recruit them to become jihadists? Did the youth recruit each other? How did the Somali community react to the disappearance of these youth?
These are the questions that Fathia Absie’s documentary explores.
Fathia Absie is well-known to many Somalis as a journalist and a writer. She once worked as a reporter for Voice of America’s (VOA) Somali Service. Fathia, to the surprise of many, also dabbles in poetry. She is, in her own words, “a complete romantic”. In one of her articles, Ms. Absie pronounced that “love is peace and prosperity. It’s why we need so much of it”. It is interesting to note here that Fathia once told a reporter for the Star Tribune (2/7/11) that she had ambitions to make a movie about Somali poet Elmi Boodheri who supposedly died of love. It is with this passion and intensity that Fathia tackles the case of the missing youth. She has interviewed scores of community activists, imams, youth, parents of the missing youth, FBI officials, and intellectuals. She has left no stone unturned.
The case of the missing youth was not an easy one to address because the law enforcement investigations created a deadly climate of fear. The FBI agents, while doing their job of protecting the USA from danger, were breathing heavily down the people’s necks. Somali youth were harassed at the campuses of the University of Minnesota, at their jobs, at the airport, and at immigration interviews. Some were threatened with deportations if they did not cooperate, while others were promised Green Cards if they cooperated. The imam of Abubakar as-Siddiq Mosque in Minneapolis and four of his colleagues were put on “No Fly” list. By the conclusion of the investigation, the United States had indicted 14 people for the case of the missing youth. Ironically, the second largest terrorism in the history of America also produced a stream of unwanted reports that had no value whatsoever to intelligence. As one Somali community activist in Minnesota told this writer, ‘Damn the three- letter people [a Somali euphemism of the FBI]. Now they know who is cheating on his wife, who is the polygamist cleric, who is the elderly lady who sends money to her grandchildren in Ceelasha Biyaha [a suburb of Mogadishu] and who is the ‘nice and friendly community leader whose career has been blighted by alcohol abuse”. Perhaps, it was good that the authorities discovered that the Somali community was not, after all, a den of terrorists. But the experience of going through such a vast investigation, as the film points out, and being under the microscope was nothing to be trifled with. There were two hearings about the case in the U.S Senate and House of Representatives respectively.
Like an X-ray, Broken Dreams exposes the Somali community to the core; stripped and not beautified. It shows how the civil war still defines the community; a conflict that is far from the streets of Minnesota and Seattle yet so close to the hearts of people that it shapes their daily life. It is the irony of shifting allegiances and moral confusion. What is wrong today is right tomorrow, and vice-versa. It tells of a community that produces children in rapid succession but lacks the time to educate, nurture and talk with them. It explores the habit of settling scores due to clannish differences to the extent that true issues are muddled or diluted.
The case in point is the one mentioned above of Somalia’s president, the former jihadist. In 2009, Sheikh Sharif came to Minnesota, this time though he was, like Zeus in Greek mythology, sitting on the top of Mount Olympus. He encouraged Somali parents to keep an eye on their children lest they be recruited by sinister forces lurking in the shadows of mosques. “If you take them [children] to the mosque, and you wanted good things for them, that is a good idea,” he admonished. “But the [recruiters] have infiltrated the mosques, too. We must be aware when our kids go to mosques, what they do there, and how they think.” The Al-Shabab group has been waging war against the very government that Sheikh Sharif heads. This shift, in the Somali context, is more than political expediency. It is how religion is used, or rather misused, to justify any given position. What the president’s audience, and those who were clapping for him, forgot was that this was the same man who was openly recruiting the young men to join the jihad two years earlier but now was killing them in the name of the ‘war on terror’.
This reminds me an incident a young Jordanian engineer told me about many years ago when, as a teen trying to get a driver license in his native country, he bribed a police officer to get the document. One day, the young man was driving in the streets of Amman when he committed an egregious traffic violation. He was stopped by an officer who screamed at him and asked the teen, “who is the idiot and the dog who gave you the license?” The young man did not flinch and told the officer, “Sir, it was you”. It was the same officer who had secured the license for him. The Somali president is like that traffic officer who had forgotten his misconduct. The president has yet to apologize for his indirect role in the missing youth and yet he again was the very one who made incendiary jihadist remarks.
While I thought the film was twice as long as it is needed to be, the documentary raises essential questions that are captivating and engrossing. I also would have preferred to see more of the youth speak in the film than the community activists and imams who, at times, are redundant. Unfortunately, seven of the youth speak a mere total of 12 minutes whereas the so-called community activists pontificate about topics that do not add to the topic in hand. The documentary is interesting when parents of the missing youth speak and not when the community activists huff and puff. For instance, Burhan Hassan’s mother gives a powerful and moving portrayal of her son; something Burhan’s two uncles, Osman Ahmed and Abdirizak Bihi (both of whom testified at the Senate and the House of Representatives respectively) unfortunately failed to do. Both uncles engage in vitriol attack against the people of Abubakar as-Siddiq Mosque for allegedly recruiting their nephew. Osman Ahmed, in a sworn testimony before the Congress, even went a step further when he accused that mosque’s leadership for recruiting Burhan, collecting money for al-Shabab militants, and sending the proceedings to Somalia. There is only one problem with these accusations. While mosque leaders were evidently guilty of ineptness in crisis management as well as poor public relations, they were never indicted in the case of the missing youth. In fact, all of the five clerics of the mosque, who were at one time put on the notorious ‘No Fly’ list, were subsequently removed. Perhaps, Osman Ahmed has some vital information about terrorist plots at the Abubakar as-Siddiq mosque that the FBI is not privy to.
Broken Dreams is a documentary that should be in every Somali household in the Diaspora, in every mosque, community center, and the very schools Somali children attend. It is a film that parents should watch with their children and discuss. It is a film that the Somalis should share with their friends and neighbors (I mean the original DVD when it becomes available and not pirated versions). It is high time that Somalis in the Diaspora talk about the social issues that are affecting the youth and not engage in double-talk.
Fathia Absie gives the Somali community a second chance. The community, as a whole, has bungled the first time with the tepid way it responded to the issue. It was a colossal failure from the top (i.e. Somali president changing colors and one time being a jihadist and the other time waging war against terror, and the American government supporting the invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia that caused massive death and destruction) to the bottom (i.e. parents’ dereliction of their duties in keeping an eye on their children or engaging with them). What are amazing in the case of missing youth are absentee fathers. In other words, most of the youth came from homes where the fathers were nonfactors. In essence, Fathia is giving the Somalis in the Diaspora an opportunity to reexamine themselves and the events that led to the vanishing youth. What did go wrong? Why did we react the way we did? Are we blaming our youth instead of listening to them? Fathia aptly put it when she once said in an interview, “…at the end of the day, the film is not about the boys but it’s about the entire community and what they went through”. As Somalis, given our internecine conflicts, we are not yet at the stage of “can’t we all just get along” but are rather in the early stages of “Can we talk”. Broken Dreams wants us to talk first. It gives us, as what the legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock once intimated, a jolt. “I am,” he said, “to provide the public with beneficial shock”.
Hassan M. Abukar
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