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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Homeland Security to meet with Somali community leaders

Officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are visiting Minneapolis this week. The agency says it wants to build better relationships with the area's Somali community, which has been shaken by the recent disappearances of young men.

St. Paul, Minn. — The department's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties is planning to launch a so-called "engagement program" with Somali Americans in Minneapolis. The office has conducted similar outreach efforts with Muslims, Arabs and South Asians across the United States, including Chicago and Los Angeles.

One of the goals of the program is to prevent the radicalization of those groups.

Now, federal officials are trying to start a dialogue with some of the tens of thousands of Somalis living in the Twin Cities.

David Gersten is a top official with that civil-rights office. He said the expansion into Minneapolis has nothing to do with reports of about a dozen missing Somali men. In fact, Gersten said Somali-American community leaders began contacting his office as early as February 2008, several months before the disapperances made news.

The FBI has said the young men "potentially" may have gone back to Somalia to fight alongside a militant Islamic group.

And while concerns about the missing men did not trigger the outreach efforts in Minneapolis, Gersten said he expects community leaders will raise the issue once the formal discussions begin.

"I'm sure, as with any community, they would like to know what their rights are, and what their responsibilities are, in talking with state, local and federal agencies," Gersten said. "And they'd like to have a better understanding of what programs are in place within the department to help them if there are missing persons."

The first community roundtable could take place as early as next month. This week's visit to Minneapolis is primarily to meet with key government players based in the Twin Cities, ranging from immigration officials to City Hall, to find out what kind of Somali outreach programs already exist.

Muslims and other groups that have already participated in these discussions across the country have asked questions about U.S. policies, ranging from asylum status to airport screenings. The latter could prove to be a pressing question in the Twin Cities as well. Late last year, the leader of a Minneapolis mosque that some of the missing men had attended was denied permission to board a plane to Saudi Arabia for an annual pilgrimage.

In Minneapolis, at least one Somali activist is applauding the new inroads made by Homeland Security officials.

"So it's a good lesson for them, and it's also a good lesson for us," said Hashi Shafi, a Somali community organizer.

Shafi said he's troubled by reports suggesting the missing men were recruited locally to fight in their homeland. Shafi said if that's true, local mosque leaders need to denounce that ideology, and many have already begun to do so.

And, Shafi said he plans to work with federal authorities to help them better understand the often-confusing intricacies of the Somali community, while helping them win the trust of Somali individuals.

"It's how we can see law enforcement among us," Shafi said. "We came from a system that existed just to abuse its own community and dominate them. So, how we think here [needs to be] different."

Within the Somali community, efforts to get to the bottom of the recent disappearances seem to be on shaky ground. A community panel formed several weeks ago to investigate the issue suddenly canceled a press conference scheduled for Tuesday. The chair of the committee said he couldn't say why it was canceled -- only that "the community is not on the same page."

A relative of one of the missing men is Osman Ahmed, whose 17-year-old nephew, Burhan Hassan, boarded a flight to Somalia along with a handful of other young men in early November. Ahmed said the leaders of the mosque that his nephew attended need to be held accountable.

"They have youth programs. And before, we trusted those youth programs," Ahmed said. "Now we question what they are teaching the kids."

But religious and community leaders are calling for an end to the finger-pointing. They note the positive role the mosques have played in helping troubled youth, especially those who would otherwise turn to gangs and drugs.

While the FBI hasn't officially confirmed an investigation, Minneapolis branch spokesman E.K. Wilson said officials are concerned about reports of the missing men and the radicalization of some Somali youth. Wilson also stressed the importance of establishing a rapport with local Somali leaders.

Minnesota Public Radio News has learned that the FBI questioned at least one Somali-American man from Minnesota after he arrived in Washington D.C. for the presidential inauguration last month.

The man, who didn't want his name released, confirmed he was questioned -- not because he was a suspect, but because federal agents were acting on a tip that a Somali insurgency group was planning an attack to disrupt the inauguration.

Many Somalis who played a crucial role in registering and educating new voters prior to the election say they were hurt by the suggestion that one of their own would carry out an attack. President Obama's historic win was widely celebrated by Minnesota's East African community.

Relatives of the missing men said there's no question an investigation into their disappearance is under way. They've been calling federal agencies ever since their sons went missing, hoping and praying for some answers.

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