An Alleged Terrorist’s Family Waits in Hope and Fear

TIME speaks to the family of one Somali American member of al-Shabab, the terrorist organization that took credit for the Westgate Mall attack in Kenya

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On a leafy green street in a middle class suburb of Minneapolis live two children who know nothing of their father. Though the boy and girl are of Somali descent, they don’t live near the city’s Somali hubs, home to America’s largest Somali population. And they are more concerned with Harry Potter and their latest haul of library books than news of an attack on an upscale Nairobi mall half a world away, an attack that, unbeknownst to them, was conducted by the terrorist group to which their father allegedly belongs.

To the family, discussion of Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax is “haram”, or forbidden, Faarax’s relatives say. Every now and again he will text to see how his nine-year-old son and six-year-old daughter are doing. Their mother responds with short messages, saying they’re fine, family members say. Despite the fact that they divorced while she was pregnant with their daughter in 2006, she refuses to accept money or gifts from him, family members say.

Faarax is one of three known Somali-American U.S. citizens fighting for al-Shabab, the terrorist group that perpetrated the Westgate mall attack, killing at least 70 people. On Tuesday, Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta said that though they are still working to identify all those involved, intelligence has led him to believe that at least one of the terrorists was a Somali-American from Minnesota.

Family members believe it is possible Faarax took part in the attack and is amongst the five dead al-Shabab fighters. If that turns out to be the case, his family would be relieved, close relatives say. “Then he can kill no more, taint our names no more,” one relative tells TIME.

How did Faarax go from a college student living the American dream to a jihadist, indicted on 14 terror-related felony counts? Here is Faarax’s tale, as told to TIME by family members who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.

Faarax came to America as a child with his parents, brother and sister. Like many in Somalia, he didn’t know his birth date, and so gave it as January 1. He was born in 1977. He became a naturalized American citizen and in school earned the name “smiley” because he was so affable. By all accounts he was well-adjusted and popular. He went to Vikings games and loved the Minnesota Thunder soccer team. He played soccer in high school and continued to play informally after graduation with a group of friends.

He wasn’t the best student. He graduated Roosevelt High School in 2000, a year after his future wife, relatives say, who was two-and-a-half years his junior. They had met just after she’d graduated high school when they both worked for a Verizon bill collection call center. Faarax and his girlfriend enrolled at the University of Minnesota and though neither drank or smoked, both went to parties and went dancing, relatives say. “He wasn’t that religious,” a family member says. “He’d pray two or three times a day, but if he was busy he wouldn’t pray at all.”

In February 2003, Faarax married his girlfriend, and soon after husband and wife dropped out of school. He started working at Electronic Scripts, an online pharmacy and in 2004 his son was born. He was not a violent man, relatives say.

By 2005, he was spending more and more time at a local mosque, the Abuubakar Islamic Center. He began to insist that his wife wear a burka, though he didn’t mind her working. She refused. It was the beginning of the end of their marriage, relatives say, and by mid-2006 they filed for divorce. In the aftermath, Faarax quit his job to become a cab driver. He also became even more devout, praying five times a day. “We thought it might be good for him, that he was finally growing up, taking responsibility,” a family member says. “We didn’t think it was a bad path at the time.”

But it turns out Abuubakar is where almost a dozen of the young Somali-Americans who have left Minneapolis to fight for al-Shabab were recruited from. A former janitor at the mosque was sentenced to 20 years in prison in May for recruiting and giving money to young men like Faarax to buy AK-47s.

In late 2007, Faarax told family members he was helping his sister move her children to Kenya, but while in Africa he made his way to Somalia and al-Shabab. There, he’d later tell friends, according to a 14-count indictment against him, he found “true brotherhood.”

He returned to Minneapolis in early 2009 and began to hold secret meetings at Abuubakar where he’d gather groups of boys around a speaker phone and call al-Shabab leaders in Somalia who’d give the young men their sales pitch, according to the indictment. He spoke passionately about having no fear on the front lines and proudly showed off his battle scars. In the indictment he’s accused of directly recruiting for al-Shabab three young men—one of whom, Shirwa Ahmed, would become the first American suicide bomber—in addition to conspiring to commit acts of terror and to kill and harm people abroad. The Federal Bureau of Investigation questioned him three times in 2009, and each time he denied traveling to Somalia, having knowledge of al-Shabab or participating in any recruitment activities. He’s also charged with multiple counts of lying to federal authorities.

But when he visited his family on his return to Minneapolis, he told them nothing of his exploits in Somalia or trouble with the law, relatives say.

By October 2009, Faarax felt things were getting too hot for him in the U.S. Suspecting he was on the no-fly list—a suspicion that proved to be true—he rented a car with four other young Somalis and drove south. Ten miles north of Las Vegas, State Trooper Alan Davidson pulled them over for speeding, he told Minnesota Public Radio at the time. He found that Faarax was, indeed, on the no fly list and also on the FBI’s terrorism watch list. But after a brief discussion with an FBI field office, Davidson let them go with a warning, he told MPR. Forty-five minutes later, Davidson got a call saying one of the men had been reported missing by his wife. A day later, Faarax and one of the other young men crossed the border into Mexico, telling the borer patrol agent they were heading to Tijuana. A day after Faarax left the country, the FBI filed terrorism charges against him. His family learned of his dramatic flight from Minneapolis when friends called and told them to turn on the evening news.

Al-Shabab leaders contact most families of the estimated 25 to 40 young men who’ve gone over to fight for them in Somalia, community leaders say. They tell them to not speak to the press or authorities, as it could cost them their son’s life. Most live in fear, not only of losing their loved one, but of retribution within the community for being related to a terrorist. Faarax doesn’t help matters for his family by openly mocking Minneapolis’ Somali community leaders on twitter and facebook. Faaraz “is a dangerous, evil man,” says Abdirizak Bihi, a Minneapolis community leader who lost a nephew to al-Shabab.

As his family waits to learn Faarax’s fate, part hoping and part dreading the news, they mourn the lives he has destroyed fighting for al-Shabab and the potential lives he may have taken in Nairobi. They also wonder what they’ll one day tell two innocent young children of their father, the alleged terrorist, and how it came to be that he so despised his adoptive country—his children’s country—that he devoted his life to its enemies.