Abi Mohammed was dashing about his small kitchen early Wednesday preparing rice and goat for the lunchtime rush when he paused to get something off his chest.
“I don’t care if they are young, they should be prosecuted,” said Mohammed, owner of Kin Restaurant in a south Denver strip mall jammed with East African businesses. “They need to charge them or we are all going to pay for it.”
Mohammed, like so many Muslims in Denver, was struggling to make sense of the news that three local teenage girls had been stopped in Germany apparently on their way to Syria to join the militant group Islamic State. Although he couldn’t specify what sort of punishment, he felt some sanction was required to prevent further incidents.
The news has caused widespread shock and anxiety among Denver’s Somali community, whose members say they fear the case will cast suspicion on all of them. A handful of Somalis from Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio, have joined Islamic militant groups such as the Shabab in Somalia, and major efforts are underway in those cities to preempt the further radicalization of Somali youths.
Authorities say two sisters, ages 15 and 17, of Somali descent and a third girl, 16, from Sudan were reported missing Friday and were stopped by officials at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany. They had apparently lied to their parents about their whereabouts and stole $2,000 to finance the trip.
The girls even tweeted their plans to friends at school, who either warned them against going or wished them well, according to the Denver Post. The teens have returned to Denver and will not face local charges, according to a spokesman for the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office. The FBI is investigating but would not comment on the possibility of federal charges.
“They were all underage, and fortunately we were able to assist in finding them,” said a senior FBI official, speaking to the Los Angeles Times on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing. “We’re not sure yet who was influencing whom, or why. But they are all safe.”
A sheriff’s deputy who went to check on the Somali sisters at their home Monday found them asleep in their bedroom. Their mother woke them up to speak to the deputy, a sheriff’s office report said.
“I asked them why they went to Germany, and they said, ‘Family,’ and would not elaborate on any other details about their trip,” the deputy wrote in the report.
Few in their community believe the girls acted alone. Tustin Amole, a spokesman for the Cherry Creek School District, told the Associated Press that at least one of the girls was communicating with someone online encouraging them to go to Syria.
“They were young and ignorant,” Mohammed said. “How do teenagers get aboard international flights alone? This was a process.
“Listen to me, Somalis love talking about politics,” he said. “They never stop.
“I worry that these kids hear their parents talking about ISIS and take it seriously,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
The neat and tidy apartment complex where the girls live was quiet Wednesday. A few news crews milled around, but few people were talking. A family spokesman who had earlier reported that the girls were in good health could not be reached for comment.
The apartments have a large contingent of Africans, many from Somalia. Women in colorful veils glided along the sidewalks while men gathered beside taxis Wednesday to talk and smoke, with some speculating about the girls.
“This whole thing is too close for comfort,” said Rafael Vorvor, 31, of Ghana, who lives in the complex. “I don’t think the girls were doing it because they hate America; I think they did it for love. They were taken in by ISIS propaganda.”
Vorvor plays soccer with Somalis.
“I ran into one Somali kid who was saying all of these radical things, but then he disappeared,” he said. “I told him, ‘You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.’”
Not far away at the Mile High Halal Market, Abdullah Gass, 40, from Somalia, said he knew the uncle of the two sisters.
“They are very poor people,” he said. “They have nothing.”
He suspects someone else was bankrolling the trip. But authorities said the girls took the money from their parents.
“The problem with all of these people is that they don’t understand Islam,” Gass said. “They get so many messages from every direction.”
His friend Yusef Abbi, 37, a limo driver, chimed in.
“They don’t even know how to pray!” he exclaimed.
Gass, standing behind the counter, grew serious.
“There are maybe 4,000 or 6,000 Somalis around here and Denver is a very peaceful place for us,” he said. “My fear is this will change all of that.”
That fear was echoed across town inside the teeming MandeeQ Restaurant where a dozen or so Somalis gathered to eat, play pool and watch soccer.
“We are still suffering from Sept. 11, and whenever something like this happens, we have to return to the beginning,” said the restaurant manager who identified himself only as Abdi. “These kids were probably brainwashed. It’s shocking for us because we are not a radical population.”
Times staff writer Michael Muskal in Los Angeles contributed to this report.