Since the Islamic State emerged from the shadows of Syria’s Civil War and became the world’s most feared jihadi militant group, foreign fighters have flocked to enlist from around the world. While the number of Americans attempting to join the Islamic State has remained relatively low compared to certain European countries, one particular community in Minnesota remains vulnerable to recruitment by organizations the U.S. designates as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO).
On April 19, six Somali-Americans were arrested for attempting to travel to Syria and link up with the Islamic State, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL. All were young men between the ages of 19 and 21. Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman, 19, Adnan Farah, 19, Hanad Mustafe Musse, 19, and Guled Ali Omar, 20, were arrested in Minneapolis while Abdirahman Yasin Daud, 21, and Mohamed Abdihamid Farah, 21, were arrested trying to buy fake passports in San Diego.
These men are the latest in a line of young Somali-Americans recruited to join FTOs, an issue that this community — described by locals as “vibrant, resilient, and peaceful” — has faced since 2006.
“We have a terror recruiting problem in Minnesota,” the U.S. Attorney in Minnesota, Andrew Luger, said at a press conference on April 20.
A pilot program that will launch this year called Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) has focused on three cities in the U.S.: Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis-St. Paul. The program falls under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and works with “[Department of Justice] DOJ and State and Local law enforcement partners” to prevent extremism through community outreach and by supporting local communities.
To date, around 30 people with links to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area have either traveled to join the Islamic State or been arrested for attempting to. The continuing vulnerability of the Somali-American community has made the Twin Cities a focal point for government agencies and programs attempting to work with the community to counter violent extremism. But sections of the Somali-American population distrust what they fear are the government’s attempts at covertly surveilling their community. If the U.S. government wants to help communities fight radicalization through community outreach and after school programs, why are law enforcement agencies the ones reaching out?
History Of Recruitment
In July 2006, U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia to back the Transitional Federal Government there. Al Shabab, a splinter group of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) that controlled Mogadishu prior to the Ethiopian invasion, formed as a result and, according to members of the Somali community, initially drew large support from the diaspora in Minnesota who were driven primarily by Somali nationalism.
“There was a very high level of recruiting,” Michael Leiter, director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center under the Bush II and Obama administrations, told ThinkProgress. “Mosques tended to be very good at spotting those with extreme views and expelling them.” Leiter said those who splintered from the mosques would often meet a recruiter who connect susceptible youths to people in Somalia. “Sometimes [they were] connected with Al Shabab [before arriving]…and sometimes when they got there they’d fight with Al Shabab.”
Between 2006 and 2011, around 27 members of the Somali community traveled to fight in Somalia. Somali-American community members said that at the time they viewed Al Shabab’s fight as nationalistic and based on frustration with American foreign policy decisions. But Al Shabab’s brutal violence left much of the community appalled and soon they began publicly denouncing the group. The Anti-Defamation League said in a February 2015 report that recruiting for Al-Shabab started declining in 2012.
But recruiting for FTOs hasn’t gone away. An April 2015 field study on recruitment in Minnesota said the Islamic State is now the major recruiter in the area and working to convince young men to fill its ranks in Syria and Iraq.
“ISIL has appropriated the Al Shabaab recruiting network, indicating some collaboration between the two groups and suggesting a future direct alliance between them,” reads the study called Foreign Fighters: Terrorist Recruitment and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Programs in Minneapolis-St. Paul. The study was released by the National Center of Excellence for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) at the University of Southern California and prepared for the DHS.
“ISIS is different,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies focusing on counterterrorism. “There is not a nationalistic element and it has nothing to do with heritage.”
“There are greater national impulses in Somalia than Syria and Iraq where it’s not a main driver,” said Leiter. “ISIS is the best at social media [making it] appealing to Westerners.”
Slightly more than 100 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria and Iraq to link up with the Islamic State. Some are converts while others are the children of immigrants. The largest group is Minnesota’s Somali-American community and the focus on terrorism recruitment by media and law enforcement alike is leaving sections of the community increasingly frustrated.
A Targeted Community
“It’s not everybody going [to join the Islamic State],” Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Minnesota chapter, told ThinkProgress. “They’re labelling the whole community as suspect.”
Hussein said that such attention was overshadowing other issues — both good and bad. He cited Minnesota’s election of the first Muslim congressman in 2007 and last year the first woman of Somali descent joined the St. Paul police department.
“I’m not surprised kids leaving Minnesota to join these groups is headlines news. It’s national security so it’s important,” said Hussein. “But there are other important stories.”
He pointed to a number of unsolved homicide cases, widespread poverty and unemployment among the Somali immigrant and refugee population, and one of the worst education achievement gaps in the United States. Hussein also said that the Somali-American community faces heavy levels of discrimination — compounded by the events of 9/11. Hussein said discrimination derives from the fact the Somali-American community is the “most visible Muslim community in America”.
In an op-ed for Minnesota’s Star-Tribune that caused outrage in the Somali-American community, former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN) described the state as the “Land of 10,000 Terrorists.” Minnesota’s license plates describe it as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.”
A collection of radical right-wing media outlets and blogs even labelled Minneapolis as a “no-go zone” ruled by a strict interpretation of Islamic law.
“Minneapolis is a small metropolis and it makes you very visible,” said Hussein. Somalis stand out from the predominately white population (around 64 percent in Minneapolis). Somali women typically dress more conservatively in line with Somali custom.
The media-circus and increased attention from law enforcement agencies has left the community feeling targeted. In 2009, the Federal Bureau of Investigation sent out a memo to field offices in six U.S. cities to gather intelligence on terrorist recruiting efforts under the guise of community outreach.
“We never followed it because at the time we believed our brand of community outreach would engender the trust we’d built up here,” said Kyle Loven, the FBI’s spokesman in Minneapolis at the time. “We took great care to make sure our outreach specialists were not involved in any investigations.”
The seeds were sown nonetheless and fear pervades that community outreach from the government and various law enforcement agencies is simply an attempt at surveilling the Somali-American community.
“Law enforcement rains down on people and people feel we will be followed if we say ISIS out loud,” said Hussein.
Law Enforcement’s Efforts
When Andrew Luger was sworn in as the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota in February 2014 he set out to better understand the communities he was tasked with presiding over. He attended numerous meetings with clan elders, imams, and other community leaders.
The latest project aimed at countering violent extremism is a community designed project planned and set to be executed by 15 Somali community leaders. It’s more comprehensive than past plans and focuses on providing the Somali community with badly-needed support. Many Somali kids live in single parent homes and need scholarships or mentors — something the new program will provide. Other parts of the program focus on outreach and increased communication and partnership between law enforcement and the community. The program has also reached out to numerous faith-based leaders after past efforts were criticized for failing to incorporate that constituency.
But some in the community remain skeptical over any program put forth by a law enforcement agency. Hussein said some young men had negative experiences in the past with law enforcement after refusing to be FBI informants.
These concerns are also shared by those outside the community. “I have concerns about the methodology, particularly when talking about this concept of radicalization,” Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and former FBI agent focused on counterterrorism, told ThinkProgress. “It’s a topic that people who spend a lot of time researching terrorism have great difficulty with.”
German said past programs had lacked “transparency and accountability” and “having spent time in Minneapolis I know there is considerable concern about how these programs have been implemented.”
Over a 12-year period leading up to 9/11, German infiltrated various terrorist organizations including neo-Nazis and other groups opposed to the U.S. government. “A lot of things the FBI and U.S. government were doing was counterproductive and [went against] the privacy and liberties of innocent people,” he said.
Leiter, the former counterterrorism chief, said Minnesota was “closer to the cutting edge” than other places but still “imperfect in a lot of ways.”
“The DOJ, and less so, the DHS are the face of federal law enforcement. FBI is even broader,” he said. “It’s unsurprising people are a little nervous when you come with a badge and a gun.”
This post has been updated to report that the USC study was prepared for the DHS. The original version incorrectly reported that study was prepared by the DHS.