A director of a controversial Islamic centre in Minneapolis, Minn., was in Toronto at about the time an arraignment was held for a Toronto man facing terrorism charges, sources tell CBC News.
Hasan Jama — a director of a Minneapolis Islamic centre where a handful of young Somalis regularly worshipped before disappearing in 2008 — was in Toronto around the time Mohamed Hersi appeared in a Brampton courtroom, the sources said.
Hersi, 25, was arrested March 29 at Toronto's Pearson International Airport and appeared in Brampton for a bail hearing the next day.
Police allege he planned to travel to Somalia to join al-Shabaab, a group Canada has listed a terrorist organization.
Hersi is charged with attempting to participate in terrorist activity and providing counsel to a person to participate in terrorist activity. Through his lawyer, Hersi has denied the charges. His bail hearing has been adjourned until Thursday.
What is al-Shabaab?
The al-Shabaab Mujahedeen is an armed group of mostly young Muslim adherents in Somalia with links to al-Qaeda. It is trying to overthrow the country's transitional government.
When was the group formed?
In 2006, a loosely affiliated group known as the Islamic Courts Union, composed of Sharia court officials and other Islamists, took control of much of southern Somalia, including Mogadishu, from the Transitional Federal Government.
What relationship is there between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab?
in February 2010, the BBC claimed al-Shabaab had just "confirmed for the first time that its fighters are aligned with al-Qaeda's global militant campaign."
The story was picked up by many other news organizations.
How does the West feel about al-Shabaab?
Al-Shabaab is classified as a terrorist organization in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Sweden and Norway.
How many Canadian nationals are believed to be involved with al-Shabaab?
Canadian security officials told CBC News they believe at least 20 Canadian youths have been recruited by al-Shabaab. Most are from the Greater Toronto Area.
Canadian security officials allege that Hersi is one of a group of young Somali Canadians from the Toronto area targeted by al-Shabaab recruiters.
Security officials have told CBC News that 20 Canadians in the Toronto area have already been recruited by al-Shabaab. The fear is that radicalized men and women could pose a security threat if ever they return to Canada.
Sources also told CBC News that while in Toronto, Jama collected tens of thousands of dollars in cash, money that was sent from Minneapolis through an underground banking network.
In a phone conversation with CBC's John Lancaster, Jama initially admitted he was in Toronto, but in subsequent conversations he denied ever travelling to the city and said he did not know Hersi.
"I did not go to Toronto," he said. "I did not get cash anywhere. That's true 120 per cent."
Minneapolis is home to the largest Somali community in the United States. As has happened in Toronto, many young Somalis in Minneapolis have been recruited and sent overseas to fight for al-Shabaab.
CBC News has learned that up to 28 young Somalis living in Minneapolis have disappeared since 2007.
In November 2008, Burhan Hasan, 17, vanished along with eight other young Somalis from Minneapolis. Abdirizak Bihi, his uncle, blames the leaders of the Islamic centre.
"He was an 'A' student in school," Bihi told CBC. "He never missed a day in class, except the day he left."
That day is scorched into Bihi's memory. It was U.S. election night and Barak Obama had just been elected the first black president. But within Minneapolis's Somali community, the celebration was short-lived. Phones started ringing as, one by one, families quickly realized their sons were missing.
Bihi ran to a police station, where he met three other families looking for their kids.
"That changed the whole thing," Bihi said. "That's when we realized there was travel involved. But we never realized it was al-Shabaab or jihadists or any of these things."
He soon learned that his nephew had been radicalized and recruited into terrorism. He also noticed a connection. Almost all of the missing men had been worshipping at Minneapolis's Abukakar As-Siddique Islamic centre, where Jama is a now director.
Families of the missing believe Jama was somehow involved, partly because he was in Nairobi shortly after a handful of young Somali men allegedly arrived there after disappearing from Minneapolis. Nairobi is a well-known way station for North American al-Shabaab recruits destined for Somalia.
Bihi is convinced of Jama's involvement.
"He was at the airport in Nairobi when eight of those kids, including my nephew, landed in that airport," said Bihi. "Witnesses tell us he was in charge of whisking them to the airport."
CBC News asked Jama about his travels to Nairobi. At first he denied ever being there, then, in a subsequent interview, admitted to travelling to the Kenyan capital.
Parents of many of the missing Minneapolis men don't believe Jama's denials and urge Canadians not to either.
"I would say to them [Canadians], this is a threat, and it's happening and it's real," Bihi said.
Ahmed Hussen of the Canadian Somali Congress said recruiters have been busy trying to lure young Somalis in Canada and the U.S. with a mix of anti-Western hatred and the promise of a chance to defend their religious beliefs as Muslims against "infidels."
"The narrative [goes] to the extent of turning these young people to hate the very values that have allowed the Canadian Somali society to flourish in Canada," Hussen said. "Values such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech and so on are turned around and made to look like bad values, the values of the infidels. So these young people tend to turn around and then start to hate the very societies that have sustained them all their lives."
While some of the young Somalis who were recruited from Toronto and Minneapolis may make it back home, Burhan Hassan will not.
Another teen recruited from Minneapolis with Hassan called Bihi's sister — Hassan's mother — to say that he had been shot.
"He calls my sister and tells what happened, he was crying," Bihi told CBC News.
"He said he was killed. He was shot in the head."
"Who killed him?" reporter Lancaster asked Bihi.
"Al-Shabaab, a ranking officer."
Bihi does not know why his nephew was shot. He speculated that his nephew somehow came to be seen as a liability.
"One thing al-Shabaab does is … once you join, there is no way out."
Bihi, whose family fled war-torn Somalia, said he could not have known that coming to America would have led to his son's death.
"Not in a million years, no. No. We thought we left the war."