Barely a block from the Mississippi River sits a neighborhood Mark Twain could not have imagined.
Men with henna-streaked beards and women in full-body hijabs streamed Tuesday past the Maashaa Allah Restaurant, the Alle Aamin Coffee Shop, the Kaah Express Money Wiring stall, the storefront Al-Qaaniteen Mosque and other similar structures.
“When I came here as a refugee in 1995, there were just a few hundred Somalis, and we were very alone,” said Adar Kahin, 48, who was a famous singer back home and now volunteers at a local community center.
“Now everyone is here,” she said cheerfully. “It’s like being back in Mogadishu. That’s what we call it, Little Mogadishu.”
This corner of Minneapolis -- the de facto capital of the Somali diaspora in America -- presents many faces: hope and renewal, despair and fear.
But more than anything, particularly for the young, it is a place of transition and searching for identity.
“Keeping an identity in this situation is really hard,” said Saeed Fahia, who arrived in 1997 and now heads a confederation of Somali organizations. “In Somali culture, all tradition is taught when you are 9 years old, and you learn all about your clan and sub-clan for 25 generations. There’s no mechanism to learn that here, and no context.”
For the FBI, Little Mogadishu has become the center of an intense investigation into a recruiting network that sent young men to fight in Somalia for a radical Islamist group known as Shabab, or “the Youth.”
Investigators say the poverty, grim gang wars and overpacked public housing towers produced one of the largest militant operations in the United States since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Federal officials announced terrorism charges Monday against eight local men, seven of whom remain at large. That brought the total to 14 Minneapolis men who have been indicted or pleaded guilty this year for allegedly indoctrinating, recruiting or training local youths to join a Muslim militia waging war in Somalia against the U.S.-backed government.
Family members say six young men from Minneapolis have died in Somalia in the last 13 months, including one who the FBI believes was a suicide bomber. About 20 local youths are believed to have taken up arms there.
Fahia speculated that those who went to Somalia “are trying to reclaim their identity. They’re trying to find a mission in life. They’re trying to find out where they come from, and who they are.”
Those who left to fight in Somalia prompt no unified response from those who stayed.
Outside the Brian Coyle Community Center, five young men who emigrated from Somalia as toddlers huddled in black hoodies under a cold, clammy fog that turned the day dull gray. They shared smokes and spoke of those who had joined the jihad, or holy war.
“Some of them felt America is the land of the devil,” said Said Ali, who is 20, rail-thin and jobless. “They were losing their culture, their language and their religion. They’ve got family there. They feel at home.”
If he had the money, he said, he would go to Somalia too.
“My friend went,” he said. “He’s running a hotel. He carries an AK-47. He’s living life good.”
Ali Mohamed, also 20 and unemployed, jumped in. “These guys are blowing up women and kids,” he said. “That ain’t right.”
The difficult search for identity is an old story in this area.
Minnesota long has waved a welcome mat for war refugees -- first Koreans, then Hmong, Vietnamese and Ethiopians. Minneapolis provided subsidized housing and generous benefits. The newcomers found low-wage jobs at chicken-processing factories where English was not required.
The first wave of Somalis arrived here after 1991, when the country descended into a fierce clan-based civil war that still rages. More Somalis came each year, and family members soon followed, as was mandated under U.S. law. Others moved here from other U.S. cities.
Many in the community started families, opened businesses and achieved financial stability. They wired money to relatives back home, followed Somali news in ethnic papers and websites, and in some cases invested in Somali businesses even as their children became American doctors and lawyers.
Others became mired in brutal poverty. Many of the women were illiterate, and old men who had herded goats struggled in the rugged winters. Unemployment and school dropout rates soared. So did incidents of intolerance.
“We’re an obvious minority here, and have a different religion and culture,” said Abdiaziz Warsame, 37, an interpreter and youth counselor who has worked with local gangs such as the Somali Hard Boys and RPG’s. “So people feel a high level of racism.”
A 2007 tally counted 35,000 Somalis in Minnesota, the vast majority of whom live in Little Mogadishu, the gritty Minneapolis zone between two highways and the Mississippi River.
The Riverside Plaza, a public housing project, looms over the area. The grim concrete structures house more than 4,500 people, most of them Somali, in Soviet-style apartment blocks.
Pungent spices waft through the halls, and posters advertise travel agencies that sell visits to Muslim holy shrines in Saudi Arabia. The Halal Minimart outside sells meat acceptable to Muslims, one of more than a dozen in the neighborhood.
The Brian Coyle center is the logistical heart of the community. Its food pantry serves more than 1,000 families per month, and various groups help with food stamps, legal services and other needs. The gym does double duty as a wedding hall.
But the neighborhood’s cultural focus are the mosques and ubiquitous coffee shops, where people gather to discuss community news, politics in their homeland, religion or myriad other subjects.
The young have other avenues, including the Internet.
Some members of the group that went to Somalia were said to be followers of Anwar al Awlaki, an American-born firebrand imam who preaches on the Internet in flawless English about the need to fight for Islam.
Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the accused killer of 13 people at Ft. Hood in Texas this month, had exchanged e-mails with Awlaki, who is based in Yemen.
Omar Jamal, director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center here, said Awlaki’s fierce sermons helped inspire several of the youths who later joined Shabab in Somalia. Awlaki has praised the militia, which U.S. officials say is allied with Al Qaeda.
“They exchanged messages on his blog,” Jamal said. “They prayed for him. They watched his videos. They fell under his spell of influence.”
But in the flux of Little Mogadishu, not everyone hears the words of jihad as clearly as others.
Outside the community center, the group of young men continued their discussion about the fighters who had gone back to Somalia.
To Noor Bosir, an 18-year-old student, the jihad seems a world away.
Although he was close to Burhan Hasan, one of the youths who was killed last summer in Somalia, Bosir can’t understand the alienation many young men here feel.
“All these guys who left, we looked up to,” Bosir said. “When we came here to play basketball, they would go to the mosque. And somehow, they got brainwashed. And now they’re dead.”