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Witness for the prosecution: U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger on ISIL verdict, the Somali community, and the media

The federal prosecutor says of his critics: “What are you doing” to stop terror recruitment?”

U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger

Last Tuesday afternoon, the hallway outside of the U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger’s office on the sixth floor of the Federal Courthouse Building in downtown Minneapolis was crowded with Somali-American men and women, gathering to participate in a dialogue, hosted by Luger, about how and why young people in their community are vulnerable to recruitment by foreign terror organizations.

Those in attendance, invited by a Somali-American task force, would hear, for the first time in a public forum, from three family members of 10 Twin Cities men charged last year with trying to join the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The takeaway: Foreign recruiters are becoming increasingly sophisticated, young people under their influence are getting better at hiding their intentions from authority figures, and denying the problem is potentially deadly. The evidence: Six of the 10 aforementioned defendants pled guilty out of court, one was charged in absentia after reportedly traveling to Iraq in the Spring of 2014, and the other three – 22-year-old Abdirahman Daud, 22-year-old Mohamed Farah, and 21-year-old Guled Omar – were found guilty on June 3 of conspiring to support a foreign terrorist organization, a verdict that carries the possibility of a life sentence. 

Depending on whom you talk to, that the prosecutor in the ISIL case would organize such an event just 18 days after a tumultuous, highly publicized three-week trial is either just another laudatory example of preventative outreach or a cynical, ingratiating ploy to infiltrate an embattled minority community.

Fans of Luger, who served as Assistant U.S. Attorney in Minnesota from 1992 to 1995, say he has long demonstrated an interest in grassroots crime prevention. Which is why, in September 2014 — seven months after Luger was sworn in — it made sense that when then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced pilot programs to Counter Violent Extremism (CVE), Minneapolis was chosen along with Boston and Los Angeles.

“The charge from D.C. was to create locally designed and implemented pilot programs,” explained Ben Petok, director of communications at the U.S. Attorney’s office, in an email. “Our effort is a community-driven approach … termed Building Community Resilience by one of the Imams who is working with us on the pilot. I think we did call our effort CVE at the outset — which is a widely regarded term among the anti-radicalization community — but it was quickly, and correctly, pointed out to us that CVE is not really the right way to talk about what the community here is trying to do.”

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Skeptics say the name change is, like the outreach program itself, disingenuous. In the Somali community, young people have expressed frustrations that they weren’t consulted about the effort and expressed suspicions that it is simply an excuse to gather intelligence and even recruit moles (a key witness in the ISIL trial was a friend of the defendants and a paid FBI informant).

Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Brennan Center for Justice are troubled by what they claim is a lack of transparency regarding the scope of CVE programs, especially in how young people are monitored and evaluated. In late April, over 40 Muslim organizations signed off on a statement released by the Council of American-Islamic Relations in Minnesota (CAIR), expressing deep concern about secrecy and stigmatization.

Luger and his colleagues profess to be taken aback by these criticisms and are particularly frustrated by what they perceive to be a media bias favoring the naysayers and ignoring not only the positive results of Building Community Resilience, but the myriad Somali parents, educators, and religious leaders who both support and are participating in the effort.

On Tuesday, just before the forum on terror recruitment, Luger sat down in a conference room for 30 minutes to talk with MinnPost about the aftermath of the ISIL trial and the efforts on the part of his office to both prevent and prosecute crime.

MinnPost: In the immediate wake of the trial you told reporters that this was one of the most important verdicts in recent Minnesota history. Could you expound upon that observation?

Andrew Luger: Terror recruiting has been going on in Minnesota really since 2006/2007. Al-Shabaab was recruiting people in the Somali community back then, and now ISIL is recruiting from the same community. I viewed this trial as an opportunity to put a spotlight on how terrorists are preying upon youth in Minnesota. With the hope that the evidence and the power of the allure of ISIL would serve as a real wakeup call for many of us in the community to come together and to try and solve this once and for all, because it’s been going on for far too long. I also felt that the heartbreak of the families who lost their young men to Syria would be something that would resonate broadly. That it wasn’t just about these nine people who were charged, but it was also about the young men who made it to Syria out of this group of friends and what that means to their families, to their friends.

The father of one of those men — Yusef Jama, who left in June of 2014 with the help of the defendants in this case — testified [at the trial] and it was an emotional moment. He talked about having lost one son to Al Shabaab and now another to ISIL. At the end of his testimony, he took the exhibit in his hand — a picture of his son, Yusef Jama, who is dead — and he asked the judge if he could take it with him. He needed a picture of his son.

Neither I, nor the people who worked on this case at the FBI or my office, ever want a parent to go through that again.

MP: What specifically are ISIL recruiters doing that’s so effective and so destructive?

AL: They are really doing two things at the same time. One: The pull of joining something greater than the individual — the great caliphate, the world that ISIL argues that it is creating, where you are loved and you are part of a brotherhood. There’s also the push of the west doesn’t trust you, the west doesn’t like you, you don’t belong there. Those twin narratives play out, one more powerful than the other, depending on the individual. We heard that throughout the trial. Also, at the six guilty pleas, each of the young men who pled guilty was required, as part of their plea, to explain to Judge [Michael] Davis, under oath, how they got involved, why they got involved, and how strongly they felt about it. Sitting through those guilty pleas was eye opening.

So it’s frustrating when you hear people say, “This really doesn’t exist,” “It’s all made up by the government,” or whatever other rhetoric they’re peddling. They haven’t really listened to those who have lived it, talked about it, and in a very compelling way explained the power of the ISIL allure. And that’s a shame, because as I also said after the trial, sticking one’s head in the sand is not a solution. 

MP: What penalties would you like to see Judge Davis administer? And do you believe the harsher the sentence the stronger the message it might send? 

AL: I’m going to give you a very honest answer to a very valid question: I don’t know. What happens is the probation department in every federal criminal case puts together their own investigation into the individual, their circumstances, and their offense, and where they stand with all of this. The judge studies that material, and we also need to see all that material and think about it and compare it with what we know. So we’re not there yet.

MP: Will the de-radicalization programs that are available to the defendants that pled guilty — and it’s been reported that Judge Davis is willing to consider during the sentencing phase — something your office will consider, as well?

AL: So, I’ll reframe the question, because what Judge Davis has done is ordered a radicalization assessment. Daniel Koehler, who is a radicalization expert from Germany who has been here, is doing assessments of each of the six who pled guilty and will prepare a report on where they stand in the radicalization process based on his analysis. I expect that Judge Davis will take that into account, but I don’t know. And the other thing I expect that Judge Davis will be doing as part of sentence is recommending an individualized rehabilitation process for each of these defendants based on what Mr. Koehler’s analysis tells him.

One of the things that Mr. Koehler is able to do is provide general advice on prevention programs on the front end. Part of the program we have in place in Minnesota, which is called Building Community Resilience, is to empower community leaders, religious leaders, educators, and social services to step-in at early stages of radicalization for those who are going down that path so we never have a criminal case.

MP: Some of those who are skeptical of these sorts of prevention programs argue that there’s no way to really gauge the difference between youthful bravado and so-called radicalization. Is Koehler’s approach sophisticated enough to make that distinction?

AL: My impression is that it really is. There are people in different parts of the world who have spent a great deal of time on this, meeting with families, working with people who’ve been radicalized, whether it’s people who went through a Nazi, white supremacist phase or ISIL recruitment. He’s worked on a broad range of cases and in my view has a great deal of knowledge and complexity and sophistication in his analysis. But this is something that’s new in the United States, so we’ll find out.

The point here is that these are six individuals who pled guilty. He doesn’t have to determine if they’ve been radicalized, they’ve admitted it. Now he has to go through what happened with them and compare it to other families and other individuals he’s analyzed over the years. I’m confident it’s going to be thorough.

MP: Let’s talk a bit about the Building Community Resilience program. Why is your office, and you in particular, so engaged in this process?

AL: One defining moment for me was, early on, I was at a coffee shop in the Karmel mall with some community leaders — just really beginning to get to know who was who in the community and who we could build relationships with — and someone came up to me and said that she was related to one of the people who had left [the country to fight] and talked to me in a very heartfelt way about what that meant to her and what we could do about it. And then another person at another big community meeting at Augsburg pulled me aside and said she was a friend of somebody who had left and how heartbreaking it was to her, that she would probably never see him again — that he’d be dead before we know it — and what can we do to stop all of this.

The best way I could figure out to help was to gather this wonderful group of social, civic institutions within the Somali community and introduce them to the broader philanthropic, corporate, and civic community, who I found — and expected to find, wanted to be a part of this. So a lot of this was to be a catalyst for people to get to know each other. There is one company, which I don’t have permission to reveal at this time, that told me yesterday that, as a result of introductions we helped make, they just hired 40 members of the Somali community. And they’re thrilled. So bridges are being built.

MP: So is there another initiative in another community that is akin to Building Community Resilience? Or is it a fairly unique brand of outreach?

AL: The comparison I use — and some people don’t think it’s apt, but I do, just because I know so much about it — is that when [U.S. Attorney] David Lillehaug was here he was an active participant in Minnesota Heals, 1995-96, when we were Murder-apolis. Corporate leaders, foundation leaders, the U.S. Attorney — and, in fact, Attorney General Janet Reno flew in for a meeting of Minnesota Heals — got together and said, “We have a problem, and so let’s all work together.” It’s not the same thing, but when I dove into this I turned to the Heals model as something that inspired me.

MP: The Council on American-Islamic Relations released a statement by 50 Muslim organizations opposing programs like Building Community Resilience because they combine “policing and counter-terrorism efforts with social services and outreach targeting only one religious and ethnic community.” This seems like a reasonable objection, and it also makes one wonder whether or not law enforcement should be involved on this level at all.  

AL: First of all you have to ask, “Is there a problem?” Yes. Terror recruiting has been going on here for almost a decade. It’s come from overseas, and the terrorists decided to focus on the Somali community. That was their decision. I deal with facts. And feelings play a role, but I gotta deal with facts. So the question is, “What do you do about it?” Now I met early on, and I actually met multiple times with CAIR to talk about this. And they had a number of concerns that I thought were perfectly valid and that I addressed.

Now, first of all, CAIR is not a Somali organization, it’s a Muslim organization. But they wanted me to make clear that when I spoke about the terror-recruiting problem that it’s not the Somali community, it’s terrorists overseas focusing on certain people who are vulnerable to this. And I promised I would and do. I’m a big proponent of the patriotism and the entrepreneurship and the sincerity of the Somali community in Minnesota. I’ve gotten to know people very, very well. I consider them friends. I go to their mosques. I’m respectful of them, their religious leaders, and their community leaders.

CAIR said to me, “But we don’t even know if this is going to turn around the terror problem.” And I said, “We don’t know until we try.” And then an Imam spoke up and he said, “If kids get mentored, if others have entrees to jobs, that’s a good thing. Our community needs that. Maybe it doesn’t stop terror recruiting, but it’s a good thing.” And that’s kind of what the corporate community has said to me, is “We don’t know if we’re solving terror or not, but this is a community we need to get to know better, ” and so the connections are being made.

Another point CAIR made was that if there’s money, you, Andy Luger as the United States Attorney, shouldn’t hand it out. You shouldn’t be making decisions about which organizations are getting money. I agreed with them, one thousand percent. I don’t want to be giving out grants. It has nothing to do with my skill set. And so we reached out to an independent organization called Youthprise, who does this work, who makes grants to Somali nonprofit organizations.

[CAIR] also said, “Put in writing that you won’t use us as a spy program.” And until they raised that with me I had no idea how one — I still don’t know — would use this as a spy program. So I put in writing that I won’t. Very easy. So I met each one of their concerns, which I thought were valid, frankly, and said let’s work together on this. But some people are just ideologically opposed to any government involvement in any way, which is unfortunate, because the government is involved in many communities in trying to prevent crime. Why not this one? I haven’t gotten a good answer to that question.

MP: I wanted to ask you about a few general observations that the critics of this program are making …

AL: Good. OK. But my other question for the critics, though, is “What are you doing?” That’s my question for everybody who agrees there is a problem, and I don’t know if they do or not. They condemn terrorism, which is fine. But that’s different from saying, “We’ve got a terrorist recruiting problem. We’re willing to recognize it and we want to solve it.”

MP: One concern is that if there’s a subpoena or a criminal case, the social workers or business people who are working with certain young people could be compelled to violate the intimate nature of their relationship.

AL: I don’t even know what that means. So, Coach Ahmed has a soccer program. He’s a volunteer, he’s got dozens of kids in his soccer program, and he’s a pied piper in the community for this work. And he met with me in this room and said, “I need help. I don’t have money for uniforms, for balls, for field space, for this, for that. Can this be part of what you do?” And I met him, and I met the kids, and I heard from parents. They have a waiting list of 150-200 kids, because he doesn’t have the resources to expand. So I said, “Let’s find resources for you.” So now, I don’t know how that turns into anything bad. I literally cannot conceive of it. And what he said to me is, “Who else is finding those resources for me?” You can criticize all you want. We can come up with a thousand ways that this isn’t perfect, so somebody else come up with a better way and go do it.

MP: Another concern is related to that second narrative you talked about earlier: That young Somali men don’t feel they are trusted or liked by the West, and to focus so tightly on the Somali community is in and of itself alienating.

AL: It’s a concern that people have raised, but here’s the deal: What this program is, is building relationships with the corporate and philanthropic community so that there can be partnerships, whether it’s with the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4H clubs, Big Brothers, Big Sisters. Bringing people together, that’s what this program is. That’s not stigmatizing.

MP: The Brennan Center for Justice is seeking for more transparency in terms of the ABCs of the program. Do you feel like your office is being sufficiently transparent? 

AL: Everything we’re doing is either up on our website or I’m talking publicly about with you. So, I met with the Brennan Center. And I told them everything I just told you. And they sat in my conference room and said, “Sounds good to us.” 

MP: And they’re still not satisfied?

AL: Well, they were like, “Oh, well this is different.” Because it seems their view coming in was that it was some sort of spying thing with the police. I don’t know. But that’s not what we’re doing. And when I laid it out for them in a PowerPoint in my conference room, they said, “Oh, well that’s different.” They said they don’t think there’s any data that will show that mentoring programs and social services will eradicate terrorism. But if it’s good for the overall Somali community in Minnesota, they sort of shrugged and said, “Oh, OK.” And that’s what we’re doing. That’s the transparency. Every meeting I have is open. I’m willing to tell you, or anyone else, everything we’re doing. 

MP: What is your overall view of the media coverage of both the trial and your work in the Somali Community? 

AL: So, there’s two ways to cover something like this. One is to talk about the evidence and the facts and the problem of terror recruiting. The other is to talk about people’s feelings about the trial. People’s feelings about law enforcement and what have you. So, there’s a group of people in the courtroom, many of whom are familiar with or friendly with the defendants, who have very strong feelings, as would I if my relative or my friends were on trial. I get that and I understand that. But there’s a broader issue here, which is the problem of terror recruiting. And my disappointment is that it seems like — and people I’ve talked to tell me they feel the same way — that far too much of the emphasis was on what people felt was happening and not enough emphasis on the amazing array of facts that were unveiled in this courtroom: Young men pouring out their heart about how they got caught up in ISIL’s recruiting and its message, and how their friends did, and what they were all trying to do to go to Syria to kill people, and that they talked about it on tape. That if they couldn’t get there they were going to kill people here. That’s astounding information to hear and it was presented in their words, the defendants’ own words. And yes, it was discussed [in the media], but that to me should’ve been the focus. Because we can’t address a problem until we understand it, recognize it and admit it exists. And I think the media can play a role in helping that get out. 

MP: Regardless of the tenor of the coverage, though, did it introduce the public to the wider issue of terror recruitment in Minnesota?

AL: Sure, but not enough. And again, reporters don’t call and ask me what to report. But I felt like the details of what was happening in that courtroom, and the overwhelming power of the evidence, and the overwhelming power of ISIL recruiting, did not come through because we were focusing too much on how people felt about the trial, and how people felt about law enforcement. And I think that’s a missed opportunity.

David Schimke is a Minneapolis-based journalist and former editor at City Pages and of Utne Reader magazine.