TORONTO — Several Somali-Canadian families are asking what happened to their sons after a group of young men apparently disappeared from Toronto two weeks ago.
They left town without notice, and have not contacted home since. “They didn’t even tell their parents,” said Omar Kireh, administrator of the Abu Huraira Centre, the Toronto mosque where the men occasionally worshipped.
A circle of friends in their twenties leaving town together might not ordinarily be cause for concern, but following recent events in the American Somali community, their disappearance has set off alarm bells.
More than 20 Somali-Americans who similarly vanished from Minneapolis have turned up in Somalia as members of Al-Shabab, an Islamist youth militia aligned with al-Qaeda and often likened to the Taliban.
One of the Americans died while conducting a suicide bombing and another is also confirmed dead. Their families blame extremists for radicalizing the young men, and RCMP Commissioner William Elliott said last month a similar pattern may be occurring in Canada’s large Somali community.
But almost two weeks after the Toronto men went missing, the RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service are still puzzling over their fate. Investigators have been showing photos of five men to members of Toronto’s Somali community.
Ahmed Gure, who runs the Ottawa-based Somali news website Hiiraan Online, said he had spoken to relatives of the parents. He said they fear the men have gone to Somalia to fight.
“Of course, that’s their concern,” said Mr. Gure, who reported the story on his website on Tuesday. “They desperately want to get information about their kids because they are not aware of their departure.”
Mr. Gure reported that four Somali-Canadian youths were missing. At the Abu Huraira mosque, Mr. Kireh said he knew of three families whose sons were missing.
Asked if he was worried about them, he said, “I can’t say worried because we don’t know where they go, but the parents worry.”
He said he did not know the men personally and that there was no indication they intended to join Al-Shabab. “That may be speculation, but we don’t know where they go.”
The Khalid Mosque, another Toronto mosque that has a large Somali-Canadian congregation, could not be reached on Tuesday but in a statement in September its directors advised youths against joining the fight in Somalia.
Osman Ahmed, a Minneapolis resident whose nephew traveled to Somalia last year to join Al-Shabab, said in an interview on Tuesday he had been told that at least six Canadians had joined Al-Shabab since September.
“I heard many families are missing youth in Toronto,” said Mr. Ahmed, who testified about the issue in March before the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee.
“At least a half dozen gone within three months, according to the Somali community of Toronto. According the information I am getting from Canada, the Somali-Canadian community is looking into this case of missing youth very closely.”
Al-Shabab is an armed extremist group that has emerged in lawless Somalia. Although beaten back by Somali government troops and African Union peacekeepers late in 2006, it has since seized the country’s south. In areas under its control, Al-Shabab has imposed a severe version of Islamic law, and offenders have been beheaded and stoned to death.
The United States has been providing weapons to Somalia’s weak interim government and has also struck against terrorists holed up in the country’s south. In September, al-Qaeda terrorist Saleh Nabhan, the suspected ringleader of a 2002 bombing at a tourist hotel in Kenya, was killed in a U.S. helicopter raid.
Canada is home to about 150,000 ethnic Somalis, according to a report by Canada’s Integrated Threat Assessment Centre. Most are moderates but the report says that, “Some Somali-Canadians have fought as Islamist extremists in Somalia.”
Counter-terrorism officials are concerned that foreign Al-Shabab fighters, who possess both extremist ideology and the know-how to conduct attacks, could pose a national security threat should they return to Canada.