Somali community in Minnesota confronts lure of Islamic radicals
They move gracefully over green turf, children of war on a field of play, chasing shadows in the warm light of the setting sun.
They pass the soccer ball wordlessly. Coach Ahmed Ismail wants them to know one another well enough that they don't need to speak when game time comes. Practice is wrapping up for these boys, ages 15 to 17, who won't be boys much longer.
Ismail, 42, stands just inside the field of play with an eye on the sidelines, where young men and women are beginning to gather at the end of another day of school or work. He watches who comes into Currie Park to talk to them.
“There are monsters out there,” Ismail said.
More than 20 young men left this Somali immigrant community from 2007 to 2009 to join al-Shabaab, Arabic for “The Youth,” an al-Qaida affiliate operating in the war-torn land their parents fled. In the past year, disappearances began again, this time to the Islamic State terrorists fighting in Iraq and Syria.
The pipeline to al-Shabaab used to include local recruiters who helped young men get to Somalia. This time, recruiters are farther away and closer than ever: camped in Syria but speaking through social media blasts to anyone willing to listen.
In April, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger charged six Minnesota men with trying to join ISIS. A seventh, Abdi Nur, made it to Syria, where, court records state, he continues trying to recruit Americans to join ISIS' self-declared caliphate.
They're among more than 40 people charged with similar crimes in the first half of 2015. The previous one-year high was 37. As many as 150 Americans have joined or tried to join the Islamic State, FBI Assistant Director Michael Steinbach told Congress.
“Unfortunately, Minneapolis is on the map” for recruiters, said Kyle Loven, spokesman at the FBI's Minneapolis field office.
More than 20 years after it began to form, the Somali immigrant community in Minneapolis and St. Paul remains insular. Its heart, the stark concrete apartment towers of Riverside Plaza, are surrounded in a triangle by highways and the University of Minnesota's West Bank campus along the Mississippi River. The streets immediately around it, packed with Somali-owned restaurants and mini-markets, sometimes are called “Little Mogadishu.”
The first immigrants to the Twin Cities came for low-skilled, decent-paying jobs in factories and slaughterhouses. A state with a history of assimilating immigrants — Vietnamese, Latinos, Hmong — adjusted to its latest arrivals.
“When the first Somali youth went back to Somalia, that's when things changed,” said Ismail Haji, executive director of the Abubakar As-Siddique Islamic Center. Several al-Shabaab recruits worshipped there, according to court testimony from former recruits.
Norm Coleman, a former U.S. senator and mayor of St. Paul, recently warned in an opinion piece for the Minneapolis Star Tribune “about our potential status as the Land of 10,000 Terrorists.”
Haji called the statement “offensive.” Most estimates of the number of people who joined or were charged with trying to join al-Shabaab and ISIS during the past nine years put the total at fewer than 50 of the nearly 40,000 Somalis in Minnesota.
“I don't know what forced these young boys to go to a country they've never seen,” Haji said. “Nobody understands. Even their parents don't understand. My question, I asked myself: ‘Why they don't find the root cause? Who is behind this? Who is recruiting them?' ”
Extremists don't sidle up to kids at soccer games and talk about joining ISIS, said Abdirizak Bihi, director of the nonprofit Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center. They talk about piety and frame common problems with a narrative, he said.
“If you ask a Somali young person, ‘Who are you?' there is a crisis. Is he American? Is he Somali-American? Is he African-American? Is he black? Is he a Muslim?
“What this narrative says is you're not American, you're not Somali; you're Muslim,” Bihi said. “Now someone has the answers: why the policeman is pushing him around, why the teacher is giving him bad grades. ... That's what (radicals) create — them and us. That's the narrative.”
Bihi's nephew, Burhan Hassan, went missing Nov. 4, 2008. Hassan called his family from Somalia days later and told them he had joined al-Shabaab. Seven months later, someone called his mother's Minneapolis apartment and told her that he had been executed by the group. It's still unclear why. He was 17.
Al-Shabaab appealed to Somali heritage and to the historic enmity toward the Ethiopians who helped set up Somalia's post-civil war government, said Peter Wold and Aaron Morrison, lawyers who represented Omer Abdi Mohamed.
Mohamed pleaded guilty in 2011 to aiding a foreign terrorist organization after admitting he helped organize small groups of young men to join al-Shabaab. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison, though Wold and Morrison maintain his motives were anti-Ethiopian, not anti-American. They point out his recruiting took place before the State Department designated al-Shabaab a foreign terrorist organization.
The case against Mohamed relied on testimony from al-Shabaab recruits who became disillusioned with the group and returned to the United States. Several pleaded guilty and cooperated with the FBI.
But counterterrorism experts worry about American recruits who don't become disillusioned and use their U.S. passports to slip back into the country.
“You've had attacks in Canada, Norway, France. You don't want these people coming back ... fully trained and ready to carry out these attacks,” said Orlandrew Danzell, intelligence studies professor at Mercyhurst University.
Before its civil war began in the early 1990s, Somalia had a religious tradition of Sufism, a moderate sect of Islam defined by its mysticism. But the violence destroyed longstanding social structures and offered an opening for those eager to spread ultra-conservative Salafist beliefs. Into that opening stepped Wahhabi clerics financed by Saudi petrodollars, according to a University of Southern California study of Minnesota's Somali community.
“They would carve out their own camps and schools, and say, ‘You are not Muslim. (If) you want to be safe from rape, have your kids eat and have an education, you have to change your ways,' ” Bihi said.
When Bihi publicly accused some Minnesota mosques of harboring the radicals who tried to turn his nephew and other young men into extremists, mosque leaders and Islamic organizations said he was feeding anti-Muslim prejudice.
“In the beginning, it wasn't nice. ... I was called all kinds of names, threats, everything,” Bihi said. “Radicals here would go to the community and would tell them I'm a liar, I'm a CIA informant.”
That message resonated among people who had fled an oppressive, murderous regime and who clashed with American culture over aspects of their faith.
In 2008, the Metropolitan Airport Commission adopted a rule threatening a two-year suspension of Somali taxi drivers who refused to carry customers who had alcohol or a dog. Minneapolis-based Target moved some Muslim cashiers to the sales floor in 2007 because they refused to scan pork products, and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission settled a lawsuit in 2008 to force a Minnesota meat packing plant to allow prayer breaks for Muslim workers.
In recent years, alarmed by the loss of their young men, the community has marginalized radical elements, Bihi said. They no longer stand outside concerts at community centers and warn Somali attendees that the music is haram, or forbidden. They're on the fringes, Bihi said.
Distrust of government inhibits cooperation between some Somalis and the FBI, but “we're light-years from where we were in 2007 when it comes to engagement with the Somali community,” Loven said.
“They want (the FBI) to ferret out who's doing the radicalizing,” Loven said, a sentiment shared by many in the Somali community who spoke to the Tribune-Review.
One problem: It's not illegal to be a religious radical. Once radicalized, it's easy to find recruiters and resources offering tips for travel to the Islamic State. The six men Luger charged in April organized their travel to Syria on their own, according to the criminal complaint.
Finding a place
Most of the 40,000 Somalis in Minnesota are U.S. citizens — about 16,000 are natural-born and 14,000 are naturalized, the Census Bureau says. But key barriers separate them from much of American society. Thirty-nine percent of those older than 25 don't have a high school diploma, five times the state average.
In a state with a 6.4 percent unemployment rate, one in four Somalis doesn't have a job. Half live in poverty.
“The biggest issue right now is jobs,” said Asad Isaac, 24, a 2011 Minneapolis Public Schools graduate and former player for Ismail's soccer team. Ismail, who makes his living as a bus driver, volunteers for dozens of hours a week as a coach and tournament organizer.
At Ismail's encouragement, Isaac recently applied to work for the Transportation Security Administration at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. That, too, is part of an effort to break through the mutual suspicion between Somalis and the community around them.
“Don't complain about it. Be it. You complain about the airports keeping you there eight, nine hours, suspecting you of being a terrorist? Why don't you be part of the airport?” Bihi said.
On that recent evening in Currie Park, Minneapolis police Sgt. Mohamed Abdullahi rolled slowly around the field perimeter in his cruiser. He got out when a panicked mother ran up to say she had lost her 5-year-old son in the growing crowd of children and parents who fill the park on most evenings. They found him a few minutes later near the public restrooms, looking perplexed about the fuss.
Young children began to overrun the soccer pitch, chasing footballs and riding bicycles, heedless of the soccer practice that was wrapping up. Ismail huddled with his team before dismissing them, then wound his way through the crowd on the side of the field opposite Bihi.
Both kept watch for unfamiliar faces in the fading light.
“At the end of the day,” Ismail said, “someone is going to win and someone is going to lose.”
Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or email@example.com.