COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Federal authorities have been questioning several U.S.-based supporters of an American citizen originally from Somalia who leads a group that advocates for the rights of people living in the northern part of the embattled African country, The Associated Press has learned.
Suleman Ahmed, president of the group known as SSC Somalia, was briefly detained a year ago in Kenya on suspicions of terrorism, and says he believes authorities in Columbus, Ohio, are looking into the same allegations.
“Somebody approached them and told them that I am a terrorist and SSC is a terrorist group,” Ahmed told the AP. “I think that’s what they’re trying to find out, which is something that does not exist.”
Fred Alverson, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Columbus, declined to comment.
As many as 13,000 Somalis live in the Columbus area, according to the most recent Census data, although Somali community leaders maintain the figure is much higher. The city has the second highest concentration of Somali immigrants in the U.S. after Minneapolis.
Somalis began arriving in the United States in the early 1990s after their country — which has not had a functioning government in two decades — disintegrated amid a civil war.
Ahmed, a resident of Columbus for more than a decade, says his organization has only one goal: to protect residents of the region in northern Somalia where his clan lives, and ultimately to seek a functioning, unified Somalia.
“There are extremists here in the U.S. — they should put more time on that instead of wasting the taxpayers’ money on people like me,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed said between 30 and 40 members of his clan who also live in Columbus have talked to federal prosecutors after receiving subpoenas in recent weeks.
That account was confirmed by Jibril Hirsi, executive director of SomaliCAN, a Somali outreach group in Columbus that is not associated with Ahmed’s group. Hirsi is not among those who were issued subpoenas but has spoken to community members who were.
The region that SSC represents sits between two areas of Somalia known as Somaliland and Puntland. The SSC is historically linked with Somaliland, a self-declared republic that has remained relatively peaceful. But while Somaliland wants to secede from the rest of the country, the SSC supports a unified Somalia, leading to violence between the two areas.
Ahmed was last in Somalia in December for about two weeks. In March 2010, he was arrested in Nairobi, Kenya, on suspicion of terrorism along with two other men as they tried to board a plane to Somalia. All three were released after a day. Ahmed blamed the arrest on “African politics.”
Federal investigators have been concerned for years about alleged terrorist recruiting in U.S. Somali communities.
Much of the attention has been focused on Minnesota, the center of a federal investigation into the travels of roughly 20 young Somali men, believed to have returned to their homeland to join the terror group al-Shabab.
Across the country, the government has charged more than a dozen people with being participants in schemes to raise money for al-Shabab and recruit money and fighters from the U.S. to al-Shabab.
Last year, federal authorities questioned a handful of Somali women in Columbus who raised money door-to-door for health care aid in their native country in a case that tied the money to terrorists.
A federal indictment issued in Minnesota said one Columbus resident — who was not charged and not identified — helped a Minnesota woman raise money for al-Shabab.
Somali leaders in Columbus and Minnesota have started education programs to deter youth from such terrorist recruiting. Somali leaders in Columbus meet regularly with local, state and federal police to share information and discuss concerns.
The SSC was formed in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2009, when Ahmed was elected president. It is not on any U.S. list of terrorist organizations.
Ahmed said the SSC is not an armed group and is not associated with any terrorist group, including al-Shabab.
The SSC says it has been the victim of attacks by Somaliland. Somaliland accuses the group of fomenting war in Northern Somalia, including recent bombings of police stations in Somaliland.
Ahmed “is a very dangerous and destructive individual who is waging a brutal war against his own people,” said Mahdi Abdi, deputy representative of the Herndon, Va.-based Somaliland Mission.
Ahmed, 44, came to the United States in 1995 and lived in Phoenix and Minneapolis before moving to Columbus in 1999. He became a citizen in 2001.
He is a married father of nine children who recently sold a home-health care business and now focuses full time on his duties with SSC. He travels throughout the country encouraging people to donate directly to families in the SSC region. Several members of his family still live there.
“My people have been suffering for the last 21 years,” Ahmed said. “It’s an obligation to anybody who has a heart to help when people need help.”
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