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Sunday, March 22, 2009

The war on terror, Somali Minnesotans -- and ill-informed investigators

By Cawo M. Abdi

Barely a year has passed since the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) developed a set of so-called appropriate language to discuss and depict Al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations. The basis for this language reform was to delegitimize extremist groups without alienating and offending Muslims around the globe. Winning the hearts and minds of the international Muslim community to combat extremism was thus a key driving force of these recommendations. Suggestions in this document included "Don't harp on Muslim identity" as it reinforces the " 'U.S. vs. Islam' that Al-Qaeda promotes"; "Avoid ill-defined and Offensive Terminology: We are communicating with, not confronting our audience," etc.

If U.S. counterterrorism agencies took these commendable measures to correct President George Bush's myriad blunders in the war on terror, it was mindboggling to note the complete disregard of these suggestions in a recent meeting between Minneapolis-St. Paul Somali community and staff for Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman. This three-member group stated its mission as a fact-finding one to shed light on the recent disappearance of young Somali men from the Twin-Cities and the allegations that these men returned to Somalia to join Al-Shabab, an organization listed as a terrorist group with the United States government.

An ongoing FBI investigation is looking into how young men like Shirwa Ahmed, who is considered the first known American suicide bomber in Somalia, came to become "radicalized." While there have been very few details as to what the FBI has uncovered thus far, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, referring to the Somali community in the Twin-Cities, stated that "the prospect of young men, indoctrinated and radicalized in their own communities … is perversion of the immigrant story."

Positive perception soon changed
Lieberman's staff coming to the Twin Cities to correct "the mishandling of this investigation" by the FBI and to get the story straight from the horse's mouth for a Senate hearing on the issue of terrorist cells in America was initially viewed by many Somalis who attended these meetings as a commendable first step to stop the media hysteria surrounding this story. This perception changed, however, once members of this staff started their queries with "What is radicalizing young Somali men?" in the Twin Cities. This framing of the problem, and its unbounded generalization not as a problem of a handful of individuals among a community of 30,000 or more, was the first indication that gaining the trust of the Muslim community in America, let alone winning the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world, was far from the agenda these men.

The discussions with this staff mainly revolved around their attempt to get Somali leaders, doctors, academics and youth to confess that the community, and mosques in particular, were breeding grounds for terrorism; and Somalis trying to challenge these visitors to provide the evidence to support their allegations and arguing that unless the FBI has already finished its investigation, any claims implicating the community were presumptuous. Staff from Lieberman's office might never have read the NCTC recommendations as they were not shy to speak of the "community being the one that has provided resources for these young men to travel to Somalia," and that the community must know something about how these young men joined a terrorist group.

Dismayed by staff arrogance
The moral of this story is that the security for America and for Americans must include that of its Muslim minorities. Many Somali leaders I have spoken with after these meetings expressed their dismay about the arrogance of this staff as well as FBI agents and statements that were released to media. While Somali leaders want to help lift the cloud of suspicion that descended on their community in the Twin Cities after Ahmed's death, their resentment toward government agencies might further hinder FBI efforts to gather data to uproot any potential terrorists in our midst.

Somali men and women of all ages have reported extreme harassment, hours of questioning, and even detention in American airports following the widely publicized youth disappearances; this is leading to extreme psychological and physical ailments, as reported by a medical doctor who attended one of these meetings. These experiences further alienate this relatively new community. Without doubt the indiscriminate scrutiny Somalis perceive will further wedge the gulf between law-enforcement bodies and those who might be most able to expedite investigation on these missing youth. The government should practice what it preaches: A change of language and attitude is a prerequisite for "communicating," not "confronting" American Muslim communities.

Cawo Abdi is an assistant professor in the sociology department at the University of Minnesota.

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