FBI arrests six Somali-Americans as Minnesota struggles to stem terror recruiting

As authorities arrest six young men in Minneapolis and San Diego for allegedly planning to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State, local leaders attempt to address the root causes of radicalization. 

Amy Forliti/AP/File
FBI spokesman Kyle Loven giving a tour of the Emergency Operations Center at the new Minneapolis-area field office in Brooklyn Center, Minn, March 9, 2012. Loven, spokesman for the Minneapolis office of the FBI, said six people were arrested Sunday, April 19, 2015, but gave no further details. An FBI spokesman in San Diego referred questions to Loven.

A 10-month investigation has led to arrests in what some have called the largest confirmed case of Islamic State recruiting in the United States. Federal prosecutors say six young Somali Americans arrested Sunday in Minneapolis and San Diego were attempting to travel to Syria to fight with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

But while the recruitment efforts of extremists may have been thwarted this time, government officials say that more work is needed to ensure that Muslim youth are not radicalized. So far, a few dozen Americans have traveled, or attempted to travel, to Syria to join the Islamic State. The single-largest cohort has been Somali-Americans from Minnesota, according to The New York Times.

“To be clear, we have a terror recruiting problem in Minnesota. I urge anyone who is concerned about their young son or brother to reach out,” Andy Luger, US attorney in Minnesota, said during a press conference on Monday.

Minnesota has the largest Somali population in the country. School troubles, generational divides within their families, lack of connection to religious leaders and to mainstream Minnesota, and high unemployment and poverty are among the factors that make certain young people susceptible to the recruitment tactics of extremists, officials say.

Since 2007, at least 22 young Somali men have traveled from Minnesota to Somalia to fight with the terrorist organization Al-Shabab. Meanwhile, prior to Sunday’s arrests, four Minnesotans were charged in connection with supporting armed groups in Syria, including the Islamic State. In August, a Minnesota high school graduate died in Syria while fighting for the Islamic State.  

In response to this situation, in February the federal government announced the launch of a yearlong pilot program in three key communities – Minneapolis and St. Paul, Los Angeles, and Boston – which aims to engage at-risk Muslim youth and address the root causes of radicalization in the United States. The program seeks to help community members spot early warning signs and integrate at-risk youth through mentoring, job-placements, and youth programs.

“The goal there is the earliest signs — community leaders, religious leaders can work with the young man or woman so it never gets to a law enforcement level,” Mr. Luger told a local CBS affiliate. “We never hear about it and that would be a real goal.”

The initiative enlists the participation of community members such as social workers, religious leaders, and youth group members to avoid future conversions to radicalism.

But some community members expressed concern about the Department of Homeland Security’s involvement in the funding of after-school activities.  

“We don’t want police, especially law enforcement agencies — we don’t want them to be doing after-school programs because their job is to investigate, their job is not to run after-school programs or to monitor after-school programs,” Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesotan chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations told the Minnesota Post.

In Los Angeles, a local representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations echoed concerns about the government’s involvement and said the program could infringe on the freedom of speech of the Muslim community, The New York Times reported.

Luger, meanwhile, acknowledged that the initiative’s results may not be immediately visible, but expressed a belief that the program is the first step toward keeping young Muslims engaged with positive activities in their local communities.

Local nonprofits in Minnesota have taken a lead role in working to integrate Somali youth into local communities and transform negative perceptions of Somalis. Ka Joog, for example, is a community group that launched in 2007 as Al-Shabab was focusing its recruitment efforts on Westerners. The organization encourages young people to stay away from radicalization, drugs, violence, gangs, and other social ills.  

Despite these efforts, authorities acknowledge that radicalism in the United States is still an issue that needs to be tackled.

In February, the Obama administration established several new positions aimed at stemming extremism in the United States, including the first full-time coordinator for countering violent extremism at the Department of Homeland Security, and a special envoy for strategic counterterrorism communications at the State Department, the Washington Post reported.

During a press conference on Monday, Luger said that the group of men arrested on Sunday was allegedly part of a criminal conspiracy determined to join the Islamic State in Syria “by any means possible.” 

Last year, a Somali-American named Abdi Nur successfully traveled to Syria and authorities say he has been at the forefront of Islamic State recruitment efforts in Minnesota ever since. Mr. Nur's friend, Abdullahi Yusuf, however, was apprehended before boarding a flight to Syria. Mr. Yusuf is now residing in a halfway house as officials attempt to ascertain whether he can be rehabilitated. Some of the information obtained by the FBI leading up to the arrest of the six men, who are between the ages of 19 to 21, was provided by a "confidential human source" connected with the group, according to the complaint. Authorities say the men are engaged in "peer-to-peer recruitment."

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