MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — On any given weekday, in a nondescript storefront on the eastern edge of Minneapolis, dozens of young Somalis gather to get help with homework, learn a little Arabic, or have a snack and learn about their culture. Some parents say the programs at the Essential Learning of Minnesota Institute have been a positive influence on their children, with one calling it the "best" after-school program for his three kids.
But in court hearings this week, federal prosecutors raised concerns about ELMI, chiefly tied to its association with a man described as a leader in a 2007 effort to recruit young Somalis to fight with militants in their homeland.
"If the defendant is the director ... it appears that what is going on at the school represents a great danger to the community," Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Kovats said in arguing for the detention of Omer Abdi Mohamed.
An attorney for ELMI said the center was being harmed unfairly by being associated with a terror case.
"This is a school that provides valuable educational services to people," Bruce Nestor said. "I'm disturbed by what I see so far in terms of an effort — without facts, other than association and innuendo — to somehow try to link this school to a so-called terror network."
For years Minnesota has been the center of a federal investigation into the recruiting of fighters for al-Shabab, a U.S.-designated terrorist group in Somalia that is linked to al-Qaida. Authorities say at least 23 young men have left Minnesota since 2007 to join the group, including two as recently as this summer.
Mohamed, 27, pleaded guilty last year to a single terror-related count. He had been free pending sentencing, but was arrested days after three witnesses in another trial this month said they considered him a lead recruiter.
Authorities said he was arrested because he didn't disclose the nature of his work at ELMI. Mohamed says he truthfully told his probation officer he was a volunteer; some parents told the FBI he was a director or manager.
ELMI is one of many centers in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area that offers homework help and religious education to children in Minnesota's Somali community, the largest in the country. On a form submitted to the Internal Revenue Service, ELMI described the mission of its after-school and weekend programs as: "Providing an inspiring academic, recreational, and social experience which empowers students to reach their highest potential."
Nestor said the nonprofit center primarily serves East Africans and is a place where students ages 5 to 18 can go to get help with homework and participate in cultural and recreational activities. It also offers Arabic and Quran instruction. One witness at Mohamed's hearing testified he saw kids getting help with math and English homework. Another said she saw mothers and children going in and out.
As prosecutors outlined Mohamed's role, they revealed activities that raised their concern. One witness, FBI Special Agent Uri Rosenwald, testified that a mother told the FBI her daughter, once an A student, had become distant and replaced her Western clothing with more traditional attire, including a face covering. One day, the mother got a call from ELMI saying her daughter, a high school senior, was unwell and the Quran was being read over her — a form of religious exorcism.
When the mother went to find her daughter, she was locked in a room by Mohamed and another man, and Mohamed tried to calm her, Rosenwald testified. Nestor, the school's attorney, told AP he didn't know anything about the incident.
Another parent told the FBI that Mohamed Guled Osman, one of two people who left Minnesota for Africa in July, had attended classes at ELMI and taught there. Osman, 19, is presumed to be in Somalia.
The FBI interviews also indicate some parents think it's a good school. Abdulcadir Haji, a parent who testified for Mohamed, said he sends his three kids, ages 6, 8 and 10, to ELMI, where they learn the Arabic alphabet, the Quran and a little Somali culture. Haji said he looked into other programs and found that "this one is one of the best for my children, because my 6-year-old cannot read Arabic."
Haji said he never saw anything subversive at ELMI or anything related to al-Shabab. He also had never heard of an exorcism, known as a "jinn," being performed there, and does not believe in such rituals.
ELMI's executive director did not return repeated phone calls from the AP. A reporter who went to the center when it was scheduled to be open Thursday evening found the doors locked, and was greeted by two young men who said it was closed and the executive director was not there.
Nestor said in a letter presented in court that ELMI depends on volunteers to help with routine office work, supervision and teaching of activities. ELMI reported more than $61,000 in revenue from tutoring, and about $7,100 from fundraising in 2011. Still, the program reported a deficit of nearly $74,000 last year after expenses.
FBI Supervisory Special Agent E.K. Wilson would not confirm whether anyone at the school is being investigated.