eyes on the U.S.

Jihad Recruitment In Minnesota, A Case Study After San Bernardino

The Somali community has solid roots in and around Minneapolis. But young people have increasingly been lured by jihadists.

A group of Somali women wait outside Minneapolis' Federal Courthouse
A group of Somali women wait outside Minneapolis' Federal Courthouse
Gilles Paris

MINNEAPOLIS — Inside, the mix of spices and colorful clothing evoke a taste of Africa. Outside, the snow and cold quickly bring you back to the reality that is the northern United States in December. The Karmell Mall in Minneapolis is one of the first malls founded by Somali residents, who have since found refuge and economic security in successive waves of immigration to the northern U.S. state of Minnesota.

But just a few blocks away, Fartun Weli, a Somali-American who runs a local women's support association, is looking down at the latest news updates on her smartphone from another, more immediate reality: the shock brought on by the deadly shooting this month in San Bernardino, California, carried out by radicalized Muslims.

Weli says the reverberations for her community have their own unique mix. "We, Somali are simultaneously immigrants, Black and Muslim," she says, readjusting her veil. "In Fox News' world, that's a lot." The stakes have been raised further still since Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump proposed a total ban on Muslims entering the U.S..

In Minneapolis, the Somali community had already been struggling to recover from another recent jolt: the FBI arrest in April of six young Somali-Americans about to set off for Syria. A decade earlier, dozens of youth had already joined the jihadist al-Shabaab militia in a Somalia consumed by civil war.

Following the arrests, in a column published in the daily Minneapolis Star Tribune, former Senator Norm Coleman used the state's nickname, the "Land of 10,000 Lakes," to refer to Minnesota the "Land of 10,000 terrorists," calling for a harsher crackdown.

The current drawing power of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's ISIS caliphate, far from the African homeland, stunned the Somali community in Minnesota. The April arrests brought the number of these new "draftees" up to 20, while one, Abdirahmaan Muhumed, was among the first Americans killed in battle on Syrian soil. Abdi Nur, who left Minneapolis in June 2014, posted a picture of himself on social media smiling, brandishing an AK-47 assault rifle.

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Abdi Nur — Photo : ask.fm social media page

Out of nowhere

The profile of these new jihadists is coming into focus: well-educated, with professional ambitions and a sudden radicalization that relatives did not foresee.

Jaylani Hussein, head of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said those arrested for ISIS ties differ than past radicals who had joined the conflict in East Africa. "Those who signed up with al-Shabaab were mostly estranged from the community or in trouble with the law," Hussein said. "These youths, on the other hand, come from well-integrated families."

Faced with this new reality, U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Andrew Luger drew up a plan to fight extremism that went beyond simply countering violence and criminality, and was aimed at "reinforcing the solidity of the Somali community" with a variety of support and social programs for the youth.

Jaylani Hussein was among the most vocal critics of the project. "It's not healthy to see the Justice Department, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security getting involved in social activities," he says. "It clouds the issue and creates both confusion and suspicion."

Luger's office declined to comment about the controversy, as did several key local Somali-American politicians. Fartun Weli has serious doubts about the efficiency of such measures. "When it was launched, I was part of the Task Force that supervised it, then, I distanced myself. I saw a lot of ego and not enough resources," she said. "It's odd to set up something exclusively designed for the Somali, because it ends up sending just one message: "You are the problem." Then, this also led to tensions with other minorities, who wondered why we were given special treatment."

Jamal Abdulahi, a Star Tribune columnist, who knows the Somali community well, says the polemics were counterproductive: "Whatever can help to improve our situation is good to try," he says.

Jaylani Hussein agrees that no one has come out looking good. "Everyone got their fingers burnt," he said. "And the religious leaders are keeping a low profile to avoid trouble, even when their voices could be useful."

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