Listen: 20150921_PKG: Amir Meshal (Yuen)

MPR’s Laura Yuen and Mukhtar Ibrahim profile Amir Meshal, a Bloomington man who is under both U.S. government and community scrutiny. They present a complicated story.

Meshal has been banned from at least two suburban mosques over concerns about his influence on young people. Some of his relatives consider his views extreme. And despite Meshal's objections, he remains on the federal no-fly list because, as federal authorities explained in a letter, they believe he's "operationally capable" of carrying out a violent act of terrorism. Yet Meshal, a 32-year-old U.S. citizen originally from New Jersey, has never been charged with a crime.


2015 Minnesota AP Award, first place in Documentary/Investigative - Radio Division, Class Three category

2015 Minnesota AP Award, Best in Show - Radio Class III category


text | pdf |

SPEAKER 1: A federal investigation into young Minnesotans who allegedly sought to join ISIS has produced fear and speculation in the local Somali-american community. Eight men have been arrested on charges of plotting to enlist with the terrorist group. Three of them have pleaded guilty, and federal authorities believe several others have left Minneapolis to join the fighting in Syria and Iraq.

But the name of another man comes up frequently in conversations within the community. And yet Amir Meshal has never been charged with a crime. Reporters Mukhtar Ibrahim and Laura Yuen have been looking into Meshal's complicated life and have this story.

LAURA YUEN: The intrigue involving Amir Meshal began more than a year ago after a Bloomington mosque submitted a no trespass notice against him.

SPEAKER 2: We'd like to speak to someone here about recent reports and a man named Amir Meshal.

LAURA YUEN: News reporters descended on the Al Farouq Youth and Family Center, where mosque leaders told police their concerns about Meshal interacting with their youth. And then the reporters turned up at a Tony subdivision in the burbs, where it was believed that Meshal most recently lived until, as the story went, he suddenly disappeared.

SPEAKER 3: Amir Meshal's last known address was this home here in Eden Prairie. But a neighbor says a couple of weeks ago, a bunch of guys came in a van, they loaded up some stuff with Amir Meshal, and they haven't seen it.

SPEAKER 4: And within days, Amir Meshal had sold his home and left the area. His whereabouts are still unknown.

LAURA YUEN: The story has rattled neighbors. Police records show that one woman called officers to express her concerns that terrorists were living down the block. But the truth is, Amir Meshal never went missing. That guy who supposedly vanished from that fancy Eden Prairie townhouse, that was Michelle's relative. Meshal was actually living in an apartment with his wife in Bloomington. So this is the post 9/11 landscape that Amir Meshal finds himself in. Since he's never been charged, he remains free, but he remains under harsh scrutiny. The public doesn't have all the facts about his story. So the question of what he may have done just lingers. Meshal has also been fighting suspicions from federal authorities who've placed him on the no-fly list. His attorney, Hina Shamsi, of the American Civil Liberties union, says Meshal is stuck in a nightmare.

HINA SHAMSI: One of the principles that is so cherished by all of us is that you are innocent until you're proven guilty. Mr. Meshal has never even been charged with a crime. And yet, through placement on the no-fly list, and sometimes through false statements, rumor, and innuendo that may be circulating within the community, he is put in the difficult position of being presumed guilty when he is not.

LAURA YUEN: And the suspicions continue even after statements from federal authorities that the group of men charged in Minnesota's ISIS case radicalized one another. When US attorney Andy Luger announced the arrests of six men on a single day in April, he said there was no one mastermind.

ANDY LUGER: People often ask who is doing the terror recruiting in Minnesota. And when will we catch the person responsible. But it is not that simple. In today's case, the answer is that this group of friends is recruiting each other, friend to friend, brother to brother.

LAURA YUEN: Yet some Somali community members are grasping for answers on how their young men could have been radicalized. Kamal Hassan is related to one of the teens who's pleaded guilty to conspiring to join ISIS. Meshal was seen buddying up to several young people at the Bloomington mosque. Hassan says he has concerns about Meshal.

KAMAL HASSAN: He was giving them lectures every week, giving them freebies every week. And now some of them are gone to join ISIS. Some of them are in jail. Some of them are under investigation.

LAURA YUEN: No one except for a tight circle of friends knew exactly what Meshal was saying in these private meetings. And neither they nor federal investigators are talking publicly. Their silence has helped establish Meshal's larger than life reputation in the Somali community.

He definitely stood out. Born to Egyptian immigrant parents in New Jersey, he was heavyset, bearded, and about a decade older than the young Somali-american men he befriended.

PETER ERLINDER: They said that he was shooting baskets, hanging out, taking them for rides in his car, I guess he had quite a nice BMW.

LAURA YUEN: Retired St. Paul law professor Peter Erlinder did his own poking around at the Bloomington mosque, and he says he spoke to young people and families who worshipped there. In the spring of 2014, Erlinder was called to consult with 18-year-old Abdullahi Yusuf after the FBI stopped the teen from boarding a plane to Turkey at the Minneapolis St. Paul airport. Erlinder says he learned that Yusuf was one of about two dozen youths in a religious study group that included Meshal. Erlander says the man was able to draw young people out of the woodwork who were sympathetic to ISIS.

PETER ERLINDER: This guy was like a Pied Piper.

LAURA YUEN: At the same time, former Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher began collecting his own information on Meshal. Even though he's now retired from law enforcement, Fletcher started befriending Meshal relatives, even showing up at their doors to ask questions.

BOB FLETCHER: Well, you know, I'm an investigator by trade. And I wanted to answer the question in my mind that the community was asking me, was Amir Meshal an informant, or was he the target of an FBI investigation?

LAURA YUEN: For his part. Amir Meshal has claimed repeatedly through his lawyer that he's not an informant and that he doesn't subscribe to violence. But suspicions about him have persisted for nearly a decade.

In 2005, when Meshal was in his early 20s, he traveled to Cairo to live with extended family there. An uncle says Mitchell, who wasn't religious growing up, rediscovered Islam. A year later. Mitchell went to war torn Somalia. After a round of violence broke out there, he fled the country, along with throngs of other people.

At the time, the US government was concerned that Somalia was a refuge for Al-qaida members leaving Afghanistan. According to a lawsuit he would later file against the government, he was shuffled among jails in Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia, where FBI agents interrogated him 30 times over four months. His attorney, Hina shamsi, details what became the basis of that lawsuit.

HINA SHAMSI: FBI agents threatened to torture and disappear Mr. Meshal, denied him access to lawyers, falsely accused him of receiving training from terrorist groups, which he consistently denied.

LAURA YUEN: A judge agreed that the FBI's treatment of Meshal, a US citizen, was appalling and embarrassing. But the judge dismissed the case and ruled that his hands were tied because of legal precedents favoring the government on matters of national security. Meshal is appealing the decision.

In 2011, Meshal took legal action against the government again, challenging his placement on the federal no-fly list. In a letter to Meshal last fall, an official with the US Department of Homeland Security said government officials believed he was, quote, "operationally capable of carrying out a violent act of terrorism." It's unclear why officials think that's the case. Large portions of the letter, which Meshal attorneys introduced in court, have been blacked out.

Meshal declined several requests to be interviewed. He has said in a statement that he would never encourage anyone to fight for ISIS. But some of his own relatives still have questions. Tony Osmond is a cousin who lives in Golden Valley. Osmond is a personal trainer and worked with Meshal to help him lose weight last year. Osmond says during workout sessions at his house, Meshal confided in him about his thoughts on ISIS.

TONY OSMOND: He just said that he supports them, and they're a very good group, and they appear to be on the truth and the correct path. And that us as muslims, it's our duty to support them.

LAURA YUEN: Osmond also recalls that Meshal admired the actions of Doug McCain and Abdurrahman Mohammed, two former Minnesotans who died in the Middle East last year while believed to be fighting for ISIS. Meshal also told his cousin that he never got over the mistreatment he received while detained in East Africa.

TONY OSMOND: He said that experience embittered him permanently, and it feels like it was unjust.

LAURA YUEN: Osmond says when they grew up together in New Jersey, his cousin was far from radical. He says Meshal drank, smoked pot, and got into minor problems with the law. Another relative, Nabil Ashour of Apple Valley, tells me in a coffee shop about when Meshal came to visit Ashour's family in Eden Prairie for a summer. They were just teenagers then.

NABIL ASHOUR: He had an Afro. He had a goatee. He dressed like the hip hop scene. And that was it, that was Amir, stereotypical New Jersey. Yeah, how are you doing?

LAURA YUEN: Many years later, after Meshal returned from East Africa and moved to Minnesota, Meshal moved in with Ashour. He remembers Meshal sporting a full beard and ankle length pants.

NABIL ASHOUR: I said, hey, Amir, what happened to you. And he said, the day of judgment is coming. You know, we got to worry about the day of judgment. Everything that he said had something to do with his ideology, and I frankly got sick of tired of hearing it.

LAURA YUEN: Ashour says Meshal referred to non-Muslims as infidels and expressed a hatred for the US government. But others in this large extended family have cast doubt on these characterizations of Meshal. They say he's constantly trying to vindicate himself and prove his innocence. Amir Meshal's cousin, 22-year-old Miriam Meshal of New York, remembers her older cousin is kind and peaceful.

MIRIAM MESHAL: I don't see a dangerous person. I see a father who's being harassed by the media, a father who has lost jobs, got kicked out of the mosque. He doesn't seem like a radical person. He's a person who wants to get on with his life.

LAURA YUEN: In a court affidavit Amir Meshal filed last month, he described a state of being stuck. He lost his job at the Minnesota Department of Transportation after a local TV station drew attention to his placement on the no-fly list. And this spring, he was pulled over by Pennsylvania State Police while driving back to Minnesota from a wedding out East. His entire family, including his seven-month-old baby, was ordered to wait on the side of the road while a dog sniffed the car and a male officer patted down Meshal's wife. Meshal said in the affidavit the incident left him feeling humiliated and powerless.

His friend, Neelain Muhammad, says Meshal is simply misunderstood. Muhammad is an African-American convert from New York who is nearly twice the age of Meshal. He says Meshal is a kind, quiet man who recently overwhelmed Muhammad with his generosity after he realized his 61-year-old friend was spending his nights sleeping on the floor.

NEELAIN MUHAMMAD: He gave me a beautiful gift.

LAURA YUEN: So he bought you a bed.

NEELAIN MUHAMMAD: Yes, he bought me a bed. And he said, you're going to love it.

LAURA YUEN: Muhammad says he's never heard his friend talk about ISIS or the Civil War in Syria. But in the next breath, Muhammad says it's difficult for a strict Muslim to live in America, where one's remarks about foreign policy or the plight of Muslims might be misconstrued.

NEELAIN MUHAMMAD: Every Muslim is interested in what's happening in Syria, what's happening in Afghanistan. So if a Muslim in Burma is hurting, all Muslims are concerned about it. But maybe we can't express what we really feel here because we'll be targeted. Oh, he's starting to become radical, he's starting to become extremist, and all that ties up to becoming a terrorist.

LAURA YUEN: While the talk of Amir Meshal continues, he appears to be seeking new work. He recently received his Class A commercial driver's license, which will allow him to drive school buses and big trucks. With reporting from Mukhtar Ibrahim, I'm Laura Yeun, Minnesota Public Radio News.


Materials created/edited/published by Archive team as an assigned project during remote work period and in office during fiscal 2021-2022 period.

This Story Appears in the Following Collections

Views and opinions expressed in the content do not represent the opinions of APMG. APMG is not responsible for objectionable content and language represented on the site. Please use the "Contact Us" button if you'd like to report a piece of content. Thank you.

Transcriptions provided are machine generated, and while APMG makes the best effort for accuracy, mistakes will happen. Please excuse these errors and use the "Contact Us" button if you'd like to report an error. Thank you.

< path d="M23.5-64c0 0.1 0 0.1 0 0.2 -0.1 0.1-0.1 0.1-0.2 0.1 -0.1 0.1-0.1 0.3-0.1 0.4 -0.2 0.1 0 0.2 0 0.3 0 0 0 0.1 0 0.2 0 0.1 0 0.3 0.1 0.4 0.1 0.2 0.3 0.4 0.4 0.5 0.2 0.1 0.4 0.6 0.6 0.6 0.2 0 0.4-0.1 0.5-0.1 0.2 0 0.4 0 0.6-0.1 0.2-0.1 0.1-0.3 0.3-0.5 0.1-0.1 0.3 0 0.4-0.1 0.2-0.1 0.3-0.3 0.4-0.5 0-0.1 0-0.1 0-0.2 0-0.1 0.1-0.2 0.1-0.3 0-0.1-0.1-0.1-0.1-0.2 0-0.1 0-0.2 0-0.3 0-0.2 0-0.4-0.1-0.5 -0.4-0.7-1.2-0.9-2-0.8 -0.2 0-0.3 0.1-0.4 0.2 -0.2 0.1-0.1 0.2-0.3 0.2 -0.1 0-0.2 0.1-0.2 0.2C23.5-64 23.5-64.1 23.5-64 23.5-64 23.5-64 23.5-64"/>