WASHINGTON — President Obama pledged Wednesday to increase efforts to stop terrorists from “radicalizing, recruiting or inspiring others to violence” in the United States, and to discourage Americans from going overseas to fight for groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda or al-Shabaab.
Hours earlier, Minnesota officials presented the White House with their plans to do just that.
Minnesota U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger and a group of law enforcement officials and community leaders are in Washington to brief officials on their progress in a three-city (with Boston and LA) pilot program meant to fight terror recruitment and radicalization.
Terror recruitment isn’t just a theoretical problem in Minnesota. Since 2007, more than 25 Minnesotans have joined al-Shabaab, a Somali militant group, and “a significant number” of Minnesotans have traveled or tried to travel to Syria to join ISIS in the last 15 months, FBI Special Agent in Charge Mark Thornton said at the White House Wednesday.
Article continues after advertisement
More than 24 Minnesotans have been charged in federal court on terrorism-related charges, Thornton said. Now, officials hope to tackle recruitment through a new program of community outreach, but some Muslims worry the program could stealthily turn into one focused on spying or driving up further convictions in their community.
Luger: Program must be community-run
A key plank of Minnesota’s plan is bolstering programs that foster community engagement among Muslims, especially young people, who might otherwise be attracted by terror recruitment campaigns from overseas. That means things like expanding after-school mentorship through community groups like “Ka Joog,” or increasing funding for scholarships for students, or creating new religious programming in local mosques and bringing in positive role models within the Somali-American community to speak to kids.
The pilot program is designed to facilitate this by providing funding, but stay out of the hands-on, day-to-day work that goes into the effort itself, Luger said. Local institutions, from groups like Ka Joog and the Cedar-Riverside Youth Council, to mosques and parent groups, would be responsible for leading the effort and intervening when they find individuals susceptible to terror recruitment, not law enforcement or the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Funding for the program would come from federal grant programs — Obama has requested $15 million in funding for anti-recruitment efforts from Congress — and it would filter through Luger’s office to the community institutions executing the plan.
Luger said the approach is based on what Minnesota’s Muslims themselves have requested of him. The community-run aspect is central to the whole effort — community and religious leaders design and run the programming while Luger provides both logistic and financial support for those who take on the effort (beyond federal sources, Luger is looking to partner with Minnesota-based companies and organizations to find further funding).
“Our job is really to bring the resources to the community, whether it’s people who have worked on similar programs or have tried to develop similar programs elsewhere — a best practices approach,” he said, “and also to bring grant funding from Washington, where money is available to support community-led efforts, and one of my jobs is to be a catalyst to help bring that money to Minnesota.”
‘You’ve got FBI money’
Even so, members of the Minnesota Muslim community are worried law enforcement will contort the community-engagement program into one of surveillance and prosecution — or at least that some individuals will perceive it as doing so.
Jaylani Hussein, the director the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Minnesota, said Muslims may end up distrusting an effort that’s federally-funded, with money routed through the same office, Luger’s, that oversees terror investigations, because of past community engagement programs that included some secret surveillance aspect for law enforcement, around the world and in Minnesota.
“The problem is the perception,” Hussein said. “Even if it’s completely honest and straightforward, people will see… guess what, you’ve got FBI money.”
Hassan Mohamud, a St. Paul imam, said he has heard from fellow imams who might turn down participating in the program because it could scare away people from worshiping at their mosques, worried about the government tracking their activities or spying on them.
“Their job is prosecuting criminals or investigating all types of crimes,” Mohamud said. “We don’t think this office is the appropriate office to do social work. … Give this back to the community.”
Luger’s team is cognizant of simmering distrust within the Somali community toward the program. He acknowledged that “there may be disagreement” about how to form an anti-terror recruitment campaign, and Hodan Hassan, a Minneapolis mental health advocate who helped present Minnesota’s plan, said “the fear of law enforcement still remains a concern,” for those fighting against terror recruitment among Somali-Americans.
(Better community interaction from local law enforcement is another aspect of the program. Police chiefs from Minneapolis and St. Paul both discussed plans to hire more Somali police officers on Wednesday and said they would put some of their grant money toward that cause.)
CAIR is working to create a community task force separate from the pilot program to publicize the work local leaders have done on their own since al-Shabaab recruiting burst into the spotlight. The task force would work with officials on how to best implement and fund the program (they want funding, but not federal dollars that go through the U.S. Attorney’s office).
Hussein said the goal is to avoid law enforcement “fishing for the community rather than teaching them how to fish. That’s kind of the bottom line here.”
“The challenge is to make sure the community is completely behind this, otherwise we’re creating another problem we have to deal with before confronting the actual problem,” he said.
‘Absolutely no role for surveillance’
Luger said the pilot program “rose out of conversations that I have had with hundreds of members of the Minnesota Somali community” and that it isn’t going to be a tool for law enforcement.
Article continues after advertisement
“To be clear: There is absolutely no role for surveillance or law enforcement investigation in this program,” he said. “It is completely separate, that’s how it has to work, and it will.”
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger spoke with members of the Minneapolis Somali community about his office’s investigations into Islamic State recruitment in September.
Luger is working with a group of community and religious leaders to make his case. Two imams, one of whom has helped facilitate meeting between law enforcement and the Somali community, joined Luger in Washington on Thursday to present the program, as did officials like Abdi Warsami, the Somali-born Minneapolis city council member who represents the large Somali population in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.
Other community leaders, like Mohamed Farah, the director of the Ka Joog outreach group whose goals of youth engagement align with the pilot program, and Mohamed Jama, a 21-year-old college student who founded the Cedar-Riverside Youth Council, are on board as well, and helped present the plan in Washington.
“We view this pilot program as a unique opportunity to engage our youth in positive programs,” Farah said. “Providing more opportunities, more outlets and more connections for Somali youth will help break a cycle that has drawn too many of our friends and relatives to a life of terror.”
Asked about any community hesitations toward the program, Luger pointed to his team’s credentials.
“These are leaders in the community who spoke passionately about the need for the work that we’re all doing together, to the Vice President [in a Tuesday meeting], who not only listened intently, but was taking notes,” he said.
In the end, both the pilot program and Hussein’s task force focus on expanding community-based work on terror recruitment, even if some in the community doubt the government’s means to that end right now.
“Ultimately, two to three years from now, the success will be in the fact that we’re no longer talking about young Somalis being recruited to a life of terror,” Luger said. “That’s our ultimate goal. That’s everybody’s goal. There may be disagreement about how we get there, but that’s the goal.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry