As the U.S battles Islamist terrorism abroad, cities such as Minneapolis, with its large Muslim Somali population, have emerged as ground zero in the psychological and sociological battles at home. Somali community groups there have joined forces with the federal government to prevent terrorist recruitment as well as anchor, educate and support young Somalis in hopes to assuage an identity crisis that can leave many susceptible to recruitment tactics.
At the recent three-day conference at the White House on countering violent extremism, leaders from Minnesota’s Somali community presented their plans to counter recruitment efforts, in conjunction with local clergy, educators and law enforcement. Andrew Luger, U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota and a prominent member of Minneapolis’ Jewish community, was asked to lead the initiative.
“From 2007 until today, our community has struggled with the cycle of recruiting by overseas terrorists,” Luger began, as he addressed the assembled group at the White House. After many months of meetings with hundreds of community members, “the Minnesota Somali community told us what it would take to combat this recruiting.”
Minnesota, and specifically its major metropolitan area of Minneapolis, is home to the largest Somali population in the United States, at approximately 33,000 people, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau statistics. It comprises about one-third of the total Somali population nationwide.
Somalis began arriving in Minnesota in the early 1990s, fleeing civil war in their home country. Many landed in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, which remains a densely Somali-populated area located a few miles from the downtown district and about midway between Minneapolis and its “twin city,” the state capital of St. Paul.
About a decade later, from 2007 to 2009, the FBI tracked more than 25 Somali Minnesotan young men traveling to Somalia to train and fight with the terrorist group al-Shabaab. That initial wave included the first documented American-born suicide bomber, who in 2008 detonated himself during the Somali conflict against occupying Ethiopian armies.
Since then, more than 20 of the men have been federally charged for their involvement, but others remain active, pursuing young Somali-American men with savvy social media-based recruitment tactics “to join the fight overseas or conduct an attack in the United States,” said FBI agent Rick Thornton, who provided current intelligence to the summit attendees. And in 2013, more young Minnesota-based Somali-Americans traveled overseas to join terrorist organizations, he continued, “only this time instead of al-Shabaab, it was [the so-called Islamic State], and instead of Somalia, the destination was Syria.”
In the presentation, which also included comments from U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim-American elected to Congress, Luger outlined the three main components of a proposed anti-recruitment pilot program that draws directly from the needs expressed by the Somali community.
The project intends to increase community engagement by local law enforcement, address the root causes of radicalization in the community — identity crisis, a lack of job opportunities, the need for mentors, a shortage of effective after-school programs and a widening disconnect between youth and their religious leaders were all noted as major factors — and develop community-led intervention teams trained to respond at the earliest signs of radicalization.
Now a year into his tenure as U.S. attorney, Luger didn’t realize at the outset he would take on such a high-profile initiative. But he said that following his instincts shortly after he was sworn in has paid off.
One of the first things he did was ask Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman of Temple Israel, where Luger is a member, to introduce him to several of the local imams. Zimmerman holds close ties with many clergy as part of an interfaith group that meets monthly.
“Growing up Jewish, I’ve had a deep respect for clergy of any faith,” said Luger. “I knew it would be important for me, no matter what, to reach out to the Muslim community. … When I knew the recruitment from 2007 and 2008 was back, I needed to start to understand the Somali community here, to see how I could assist on civil rights issues and the efforts to stop the recruiting, so it made sense for me to start with the religious leaders.”
Meetings take place about every four to five weeks, he said.
A month after Luger asked Zimmerman for assistance, Washington officials turned to him to coordinate anti-recruitment efforts in Minnesota. Luger, though, is the first to admit his is a community-driven effort. Joining Luger is Mohamed Farah, executive director of Ka Joog.
At the White House summit, Farah explained the mission of his organization to steer youth toward higher education, civic involvement and volunteer commitment by providing options and outlets for young Somalis. He relies on after-school programs, college preparation and leadership training to “break the cycle of recruiting and radicalization.”
“In 2007 and 2008, none of the community wanted to talk about al-Shabaab and that such things were taking place,” Farah said during an interview. “We didn’t have too many fans in the Somali community, but we did that because it was an issue that was a reality. Now more people realize it’s not just a Somali issue, but an American issue as well.”
Farah explained that about 80 percent of the young people he works with are American-born, but their Somali-born parents are “physically here, but mentally they’re back home.”
Parents encourage their children to become educated and return to help rebuild Somalia, he said. “So a lot of the kids have been confused, and a lot of the young people don’t know anything about Somalia, so that’s a big issue.” When conflicts arise, “the elders tend to use solutions that have worked in
Somalia, but because we’re in a different environment, that doesn’t work, so there’s a lack of understanding and a lack of communication between these two generations.”
Typically, parents don’t speak English well either, he added, “so there is a disconnect.”
It’s a dangerous and confusing situation if both parents and terrorist recruiters are telling young people to go back and take care of their home country, though obviously with very different motivations, he said. “But the idea of integrating into our society here in America is a lot better than it was five, 10 or 15 years ago. Now people are comfortable being here, thinking about the future of our community, and many nonprofits are making sure kids are graduating and giving back to their communities.”
Madeline Barnett, assistant director of community and public relations at the Baltimore Jewish Council, knows the challenges of dealing with ethnic immigrant populations well. BJC regularly hosts several interfaith programs, such as the Jewish Muslim Dialogue, that includes programming directed at young adults.
“We need to teach young people about different [media] outlets so they can interpret [the information] and think about it through a critical lens,” said Barnett. “They’re capable, but we need to give them the tools to do so. I think it’s 100 percent necessary and effective” in educating young people against persuasive messaging.
At Luger’s suggestion, Zimmerman invited Farah and other members of Ka Joog to speak at a Temple Israel study session during Yom Kippur last fall. The session is traditionally used to draw congregants in to participate in dialogue that can sometimes include “difficult conversations” said Zimmerman, adding that she is proud to be part of a congregation where “even if people might disagree, they understand that talking is the antidote to violence and that these are our guests.”
The hall was packed with about 300 people, with many standing on the periphery of the room, said the rabbi. Since there is nominal interaction between Jewish and Somali communities and a lot of press about terrorist recruitment activity, “it’s important to be based in facts. It’s important to confront [the issues], but also to know that the majority of Somalis want to be American and integrate into society and retain their culture, which Jews understand historically.
“We also wanted [the Somali community] to understand the Jewish perspective,” she added, “and if no one is at the table, then you can’t understand it.”
The members of Ka Joog spoke for about an hour, said Luger, who was in attendance, and “people were just fascinated to learn” about their lives in refugee camps, what it was like to come to Minnesota and what they’re doing to combat recruitment and actively build up their community.
“I think the Jewish community has a natural affinity for other communities that are developing their infrastructure and that want to succeed and pursue the American dream,” said Luger, “and you could feel it that day at Temple Israel.”