After joining the Minnesota National Guard, Abdoulaye Cisse quickly impressed his superiors with his fluency in French, Mandarin Chinese and Wolof, one of the national languages of his parents' native Senegal.
It made him a prime candidate for a career in military intelligence, in the view of one of his commanding officers — a prospect that seemed to exhilarate him, former colleagues say.
But that dream was cut short when Cisse was killed in the early morning hours of Oct. 16 in southeast Minneapolis. He had just turned 27 that day.
"His life mission was to help people, no matter who you are, and I think he just did that all the way up to his death: an unsung hero," said Kany Seck, a longtime family friend who taught Cisse at Normandale French Immersion School in Edina.
Weeks after Cisse was fatally stabbed in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood, his family is looking for answers to questions surrounding his death. Authorities have so far not released a motive in the seemingly random attack, but say that detectives are exploring all possibilities.
"He died in the same hospital that he was born — on his birthday," Seck said.
Police officers found Cisse lying in the road in the 500 block of 7th Street SE, near the apartment he shared with his sister, who attends the U, according to Seck. His death was the city's 37th homicide so far this year — up slightly from the previous five-year average of 34.8, according to Police Department data.
The son of immigrants, Cisse was the first of his family to be born in the U.S. His birth was celebrated by the small but tight-knit Senegalese community around the Twin Cities, who fawned over the infant they nicknamed "Bébé Abdoulaye," Seck said.
Like many first-generation Americans, he grew up caught between his parents' world and the wider society, struggling at times to find his place in both. But his mother, who put her legal career on hold to raise four children, made sure Cisse and his siblings remained connected to their ancestral culture, insisting they speak Wolof at home and enrolling them in a French immersion school, Seck said.
"I think they beautifully raised their kids to embrace their American citizenship, but at the same time know where they came from, and where their ancestors come from and embrace that Senegalese way of life," Seck said.
Their home was always crowded with people and parties, she said, in the spirit of teranga — "the closest translation is hospitality" — with Cisse's mother serving up heaping plates of the national dish of rice and fish, known as thiebujen.
According to overseas news accounts, Cisse's father has held several influential government posts in his native country.
After returning to Senegal with his family in the early 2000s, Cisse went to college in Beijing before moving back to the States. Prompted by a growing desire to give back to the community, he joined the Guard in 2014, Seck said.
His most recent assignment was as a fire support specialist with the 334th Brigade Engineer Battalion, a Guard spokeswoman confirmed.
Alkali Yaffa, a friend who serves as a human resources sergeant with the Guard, described Cisse as a natural-born leader who knew how to draw the best out of people.
"This young man had so much to offer, he had so much potential, and so for him being gone — and in the manner in which it happened — it's a loss to the whole of humanity, not only the Army, not only the United States," Yaffa said at a ceremony honoring his Guard service. "We have soldiers who are testifying that they only went back to college to finish their degrees because of this young man — what a legacy."
Colleagues say he was about to re-enlist with the Guard with plans to attend Defense Language Institute, the military's premier language school, in Monterey, Calif., to train as a "human intelligence collector" — his language skills and ease with people made him a natural for it, they said.
Cisse left a lasting impression on his fellow soldiers, said his former commanding officer, Capt. Chloee Carlson.
"He always had a smile on his face; he was a very, very hard working soldier. I know his section is going to miss him," she said at the memorial, a video of which was posted online.
Days after his death, neighbors convened a community meeting at an area church to discuss anti-crime efforts.
Violent crime in the area is lower than it has been in years — although inflammatory posts on popular online communities like Nextdoor suggest otherwise, said Chris Lautenschlager, executive director of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association.
"Crime has gone down in terms of raw numbers, based on what the police are telling us, but the perception of it seems to be skyrocketing in terms of what people are reading on their phone," he said.
Seck, the family friend, recalls the seriousness with which Cisse took his Guard duties. Every morning, he would wake up early to work out; she suspects that's why he was outside near his apartment at 4:30 a.m. on the day that he was killed.
She said his family in Senegal was still trying to absorb his unexpected death, while waiting for updates in the police investigation unfolding a continent away. Cisse is survived by his parents, two brothers and his sister. Seck said his body was flown to the family's home city of Touba, where he was buried in the tradition of the Mouride sect of Islam.
Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Twitter: @StribJany