Minneapolis Somali Community Struggles With Islamic State Recruitment - US News
Just last week, a North Carolina man was arrested for allegedly providing material support to the Islamic State group and planning violent attacks in the United States. Two other men were arrested in New York and New Jersey recently, charged with the same crimes, including attempts to detonate an explosive in the New York metro area. At least one of them hoped to travel abroad to join the terrorist organization, according to the charges. These sorts of arrests are a new reality in the United States, with more than 180 Americans attempting to or successfully traveling to Syria.
Authorities are struggling to understand what appeal the Islamic State group holds for youth, who have proven to be the most susceptible to recruiting efforts, outside the Middle East and what would draw them to travel abroad or carry out homegrown attacks in the U.S. The government faces a massive challenge in countering the appeal of the group that has successfully recruited foreign fighters from around the globe to help it wage its war of terror in Iraq and Syria.
As part of its response, the federal government launched a pilot program in three cities that aims to better understand why youth in Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis may be incentivized to leave the U.S. to travel to such a dangerous region. The efforts on countering violent extremism – known as CVE – seek to address root causes of extremism through community engagement and undermine attraction to terrorist activity. It is a preventive counterterrorism program that seeks to build awareness in communities and intervene when young people are believed to be falling under the influence of extremist groups and building awareness in their communities. The U.S. is also partnering with foreign governments to address the issue, particularly terrorist groups' use of social media to attract recruits.
"[W]e have to recognize that our best partners in all these efforts, the best people to help protect individuals from falling victim to extremist ideologies are their own communities, their own family members. We have to be honest with ourselves. Terrorist groups like al-Qaida and [the Islamic State group] deliberately target their propaganda in the hopes of reaching and brainwashing young Muslims, especially those who may be disillusioned or wrestling with their identity," President Barack Obama said at a White House Summit in February that brought together law enforcement and community leaders to discuss CVE implementation.
"But communities don't always know the signs to look for, or have the tools to intervene, or know what works best. And that's where government can play a role – if government is serving as a trusted partner," Obama said. "If we're going to solve these issues, then the people who are most targeted and potentially most affected – Muslim Americans – have to have a seat at the table where they can help shape and strengthen these partnerships so that we're all working together to help communities stay safe and strong and resilient."
The administration has made CVE a priority, with the goal of preventing extremist groups from "inspiring, radicalizing, financing or recruiting individuals or groups in the United States from committing acts of violence." Yet stopping Americans from traveling to join terrorist organizations is a difficult proposition. The Muslim communities in Boston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles are diverse, and each city must develop a program that works for their local realities. The pilot program gives each city $5 million for the effort, but the difficulties in executing it are highlighted by examining the struggles the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have had in its Muslim, Somali-American community to develop trust in law enforcement and address terrorist recruitment.
The Twin Cities are home to the largest Somali population in the U.S., an estimated 100,000 people. Refugees began settling in Minnesota after the government of Somalia collapsed in 1991. This isn't the first time the community has struggled to counter the appeal of violent extremism to the state's Somalis, but is much more puzzling. Somalis have no national or ethnic ties to Syria and Iraq, a link that helped explain why some went to fight with al-Shabab when Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006. Young men joining that terrorist group felt a nationalistic call to defend their nation against rival state Ethiopia, but many of those drawn to the Islamic State were born in the U.S. and have never been to Somalia, let alone Syria. Still in April, six Twin Cities youth were arrested for attempting to join the Islamic State group. At least one of the men has conspired to travel to Syria since 2014, according to prosecutors.
"As far as we know there is no one profile that brings [together] all these people who are leaving," says Abdisalam Adam, an imam at Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque in Minneapolis. "Some people say, 'Oh they are the ones who are not doing well,' or whatever. That's not true. There are some of them who have the opportunity of working, some are in school."
The Somali community is united on two matters: the issue must be addressed, and the community needs increased access to resources to ensure youth have ample educational and economic opportunities to deter the appeal of extremist activity. But how to go about doing that presents a large challenge to a hard-working Somali community that wants to keep its young men safe but avoid government surveillance and counter negative narratives in the media. Some argue that the community should do it without government involvement, while others see genuine value in partnering with law enforcement to maximize resources. Both the U.S. attorney's office and the community agree that the approach must be community-based but some are still skeptical of government involvement. And even the name of the program has prompted criticism.
"For us in our community, many people have phobia of government because of their history back home," says Abdimalik Mohamed, chair of the Somali American Task Force created by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Minnesota as a part of the CVE pilot program. "They're refugees, they ran from a war, they ran from an oppressive government. They're hesitant about their response to things so sometimes we have to be able to explain … We've got to talk common language in the community."
And while many community leaders think favorably of Andrew Luger, the U.S. attorney who is involved with the program, and the task force says Luger has gone out of his way to reassure the community the programs will not infringe upon their civil liberties, some are still skeptical. Jaylani Hussein of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Minnesota is not convinced the government can be trusted. He says tying federal funding to community programs is going to make people nervous and cause them not to take advantage of such efforts.
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"We're going to lose ability to work with our law enforcement. We're going to create a potential chaos where people start running away from anybody who received this money and start claiming that 'these people are part of government, they're here to spy on us. This money is being used to monitor our kids,'" Hussein says. "Some of these organizations, they're not going to show up because just the stigma of being in the room."
The U.S. Attorney's office rejects the idea that the federal program is being used to surveil the community. A request for interview with Luger was denied, but spokesperson Ben Petok said the CVE program his office heads is in line with department actions across the country.
Even still, at the request of community groups nervous about surveillance, the U.S. attorney's office signed a memorandum of understanding with the Somali American Task Force to reassure them that was not the point of the program. Mohamed rejects the "countering violent extremism" branding on the program, and prefers to refer to it as "Building Community Resilience," language that was used in the document.
"[Building Community Resilience] will NOT be used as a tool to conduct surveillance on the Somali Minnesotan community or to build intelligence databases about participants of the various programs under the BCR umbrella," the memorandum states. "BCR is led by the Somali Minnesotan community to increase support and resources to enhance opportunities for Somali Minnesotans."
The fact that Luger said his office would create and sign such a document, Mohamed says, proves he is truly interested in working with the community rather than constructing the framework of a surveillance program.
"He talk the talk, he walk the walk," Mohamed says. "He said what he was going to do and he did it and I'm sorry, but that gives me the credibility to at least somewhat give him some respect and support him in his initiatives."
Petok says the government also held community forums and listening sessions to directly hear thoughts on how to solve the problem and build trust with law enforcement. Both Luger and FBI Special Agent in Charge of Minneapolis Richard Thorton were at a town hall forum in May to answer questions following the arrests of the six young men and address community concerns with law enforcement tactics.
For Hussein, the memorandum of understanding and town halls aren't enough reassurance that the government can be trusted not to collect data on the community. His organization, along with others like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Brennan Center for Justice, argues that the federal government is going to use the programs to monitor Somali youth under the guise of addressing community issues. He says the community programs proposed as a part of the effort are needed, but must be entirely separate from the U.S. attorney's office.
"'Let's do in a way that everybody wins. You win, I win, the community wins. Don't coin it your program. Don't make it about stigma. Everybody's running away from the stigma. Nobody wants to be called 'terrorist,'" Hussein says he told Luger in a one-on-one meeting. "That money is money we already need and the programs that are being at least talked about … are not new programs. They're already in demand and there's no reason for them to be labeled that way if labeling them [CVE] hurts the program long term."
Despite all of the forums and listening sessions, distrust remains. Some point to the use of a confidential government informant in the recent arrests of the six men who were allegedly travelling to Syria as evidence that the government's motives aren't pure. Attorneys for the young men allege that the informant actually convinced the men to take action that they otherwise would not have taken. Hussein says there is a lot of community suspicion over such practices and concern that the informant did not perform that role voluntarily.
"The government is not trying to entrap anybody. The government is trying to develop evidence of people that are violating the law." Thorton says. "The FBI uses, as all law enforcement uses, sources of information, whether it's somebody that picks up the phone and calls you and says, 'hey, I just observed suspicious activity,' to people that we have established relationships with that report on a regular basis. But again, they're reporting on criminal activity. We're not interested in what people are doing if it's not of a criminal nature."
Thorton says that in his experience, the majority of the Somali community is interested in cooperating with the government and that many have approached him after public events to thank him for his efforts to address radicalization.
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Minneapolis City Council Member Abdi Warsame, who attended the February summit at the White House, acknowledges the conflict in the community on how the issue should best be resolved. Warsame is the first Somali-American on the council and represents several of the most heavily Somali populated neighborhoods in the city. He thinks the argument that the Somali community can't effectively work with law enforcement is "bogus," but understands that some feel differently about involving the government.
"It's healthy to have different positions. We're not monolithic. We're not all going to think the same way. In America you're allowed to think differently and have different opinions," Warsame says. "My main concern is that we have more resources, more programs and less excuses."
Stevan Weine, professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says the diversity within the Somali community – and the diversity of the Muslim populations in the other pilot cities of Boston and Los Angeles – make it difficult to produce a one-size-fits all CVE program. He says part of the problem is also in how the federal government framed it more as a law enforcement initiative rather than a community safety initiative that drew upon public health, psychosocial and educational approaches, and how perception of the term "CVE" tainted the program.
"If you try to start a conversation with that language, the conversation is over. I still believe that we should try to accomplish these things that CVE wanted to accomplish, but I think it has to be framed differently in order to get broad support. And not just from law enforcement, but from other kinds of government agencies, public-private partnership and most importantly, community buy in," Weine says. "The project of doing prevention and intervention in communities is much bigger than criminal justice."
Weine says such realizations like the importance of language is the purpose of the pilot program: figure out what has worked and what hasn't, so adjustments can be made. The success of the program will depend upon the federal government's ability to adjust their messaging and get more community support, which will be "very challenging," Weine says, because CVE was framed more like counterterrorism than officials realized.
"What people are finding now is that the concept of CVE itself needs to be rethought. The concept, the language, the approach needs to be rethought because it's perceived as being still too close to counterterrorism and the government and community is really being challenged to find ways to get work done – to shine a light on this problem – that is not overly stigmatizing to communities," Weine says. "It's not just that it's complex. It is complex. But we've reached this kind of threshold moment where we're realizing we really need to rethink CVE as promoting community safety if it's going to work, if it's going to have a chance. And I think people in Minnesota are on the front lines of this effort."
The pilot program is still relatively new and initiatives are still being rolled out. But it seems clear that to be successful in Minneapolis, or anywhere, building trust in the government is key. And there is a long way to go on that front.