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."