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Can the Feds Stop Islamic State Recruiters from Preying on Somali Americans?

Minneapolis's large Somali community has seen plenty of local youth recruited by extremists over the years, but some say the problem is inequality, not a lack of counseling or outreach.

by Allie Conti
Feb 18 2015, 9:30pm

Minnesota's Somali community is the largest in America. Photo via Flickr user Fibonacci Blue

On Wednesday, President Obama is meeting with world leaders at the White House to discuss homegrown terrorists. The three-day summit, originally planned for last October, was revamped in the light of recent attacks in Europe carried out by radicalized Muslims. Among the topics will be how local communities can prevent disenfranchised youth from heading to Syria or committing violent acts closer to home in places like Los Angeles, Boston, or Minneapolis.

Those three cities are the focus of a pilot program intended to secure mental health counseling and community support for kids who've been groomed by extremists. The federal experiment was launched in response an exodus of at least 20 Twin Cities kids since 2007 to join al Shabaab—a jihadist group in Somalia that's affiliated with al Qaeda and probably best-known for its attack on a Kenyan mall in 2013. Since then, the Midwestern metropolis has been considered a hotbed of terror recruitment, and the Islamic State may have surpassed al Shabaab in local recruiting efforts.

People caught trying to join terror groups can face years in prison, so it makes sense that even though the family members of the al Shabaab recruits might have known something was up, they didn't go to the cops with their concerns. That's why they asked US Attorney Andrew Luger to give them the opportunity to deal with the problem themselves, without the risk of FBI involvement.

Abdi Bihi, a Somali community leader in the Twin Cities, is grateful for the pilot program, but thinks it doesn't address the systemic problems that allow for terror recruiters to do their dirty work in the first place. He says a lack of employment opportunities coupled with a paucity of after-school programs is to blame, and the government should work on correcting those inequities if they want to fix the problem.

He might know better than most: Bihi's nephew, Burhan Hassan, was one of the kids who shipped off to fight for al Shabaab back in 2008.

As Bihi remembers it, Hassan started spending a lot of time at Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in South Minneapolis when he was 17 and eventually started sleeping over. No one thought anything of it, because it was literally the only place for him to go after school.

But Hassan started spending time at the mosque at the expense of almost everything else. First, he shed friends. Then he lost his passion for hockey. Eventually, his speech became truncated and to the point: Yes ma'am and no ma'am was just about all his mother could get out of him. When she left dinner on the table and went to classes at the local college, Hassan would just stare at his full plate of food until she returned six hours later.

He disappeared on Election Night in 2008 and died fighting for al Shabaab the following year.

The Somali Civil War has been raging for decades, and the United Nations only intervened in 1992. Bihi says there was a period when Wahhabi Muslims were the only people offering aid, and they began implanting the idea among Somalis that they were practicing the wrong kind of Islam. That kind of rhetoric followed the community into the diaspora—and Minneapolis has the biggest population of Somalis in the US.

There, many fatherless young men were susceptible to anyone who might offer them answers to problems like unemployment, discrimination, and poverty. They looked for a positive role model and found people in the local mosque who were willing to offer them guidance and answers in the Qur'an.

"They see a young man who is quiet and angry," Bihi explains. "They give him a name like 'The Great Horseman.' They recognize him and empower him psychologically, and that's how it begins."

After becoming the "dad they never had," as Bihi puts it, recruiters start painting infidels as the enemy. Eventually, after enough grooming, they introduce jihadi videos and Bollywood movies with beautiful women in them—meant to serve as examples of the rewards that will supposedly greet jihadis in the afterlife. Although much has been made of terrorists' use of social media, Bihi says that face-to-face interaction is much more insidious.

"No kid wakes up one day and decides not to go to school and to google terrorist groups that are interested in taking young people to their deaths," he says. "There has to be someone to introduce the idea."

In 2012, the feds figured out who that person was in Minneapolis. "Operation Rhino" brought down Mahamud Said Omar, a janitor at Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, and eventually a court convicted him of taking the kids—ranging in age from 17 to their mid 20s—to Amsterdam or Dubai before dropping them in Mogadishu.

Today, Bihi runs the Somali Education and Somali Advocacy Center in Minneapolis. His goal is to hook up young kids with jobs in health care and construction and to provide soccer and arts programs that serve as an alternative to either joining a gang or extremist groups.

Of course, Bihi is glad that the government is taking steps to help protect his community's young people. But he thinks that if they had the same after-school programs enjoyed by neighboring cities like St. Paul, would-be recruiters wouldn't have a leg to stand on. Until that changes, he's taking on the burden of becoming a father to the fatherless. And, of course, he wishes he'd realized how dire the situation was before he pushed his nephew toward the mosque that would ultimately lead him to his death.

"When you don't have programs and live in a tiny space with thousands of families and there are all these gangs and mothers that don't have a husband who work two jobs they think, Well, they can get their spiritual needs met and stay out of trouble." Bihi says. "I didn't know what was happening, so I'd say, 'Go have fun.'"

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