Minn. Muslims unhappy with program that pays them not to become terrorists

From the UK Guardian

Hibaaq Osman has a glow that changes the energy in a room, or in her case, the energy of the restaurant her family owns in Karmel mall, the oldest Somali mall in Minneapolis. The cafe is right near the mosque on the top floor of the building, past rows of entrepreneurs selling wares in individual stalls, sipping hot drinks in small cups and chatting in Somali.

Officer Mukhtar Abdulkadir speaks with a woman who is wearing a Free Our Boys T-shirt in support of five young men recently accused of attempting to join Isis. 

Officer Mukhtar Abdulkadir speaks with a woman who is wearing a Free Our Boys T-shirt in support of five young men recently accused of attempting to join Isis. 

Osman retains her glow, even in anger. And after a press conference held outside the mosque, she is upset. 

“I feel like we as a community need to wake up,” she said. “We need to wake up and say, ‘You know what? Enough is enough.’ We are citizens, we are taxpayers, we own businesses, we need people to understand that we also are part of this country just the way anybody else is.”

 With a population of at least 30,000, the Somali people are a significant presence in the Twin Cities, home to more 3.5 million people. Because they have been coming to Minnesota since the 1980s, the people who come now have family and friends who have already established a life in the midwest. They love it – besides the cold winters.

Rooted as they are in Minnesota, many in the the Somali Muslim community are alarmed at a US attorney-led program that they believe singles them out as more blood thirsty than other ethnic or religious groups, and makes them vulnerable to surveillance. 

Led by a taskforce of 15 Somali Americans and a traditional community grant-making organization, the Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) program is the brainchild of the chief federal prosecutor for Minnesota, Andrew Luger. Later this month, it will launch a number of yet-to-be-announced grants to programs aimed at creating educational and professional opportunities among the Somali Muslim community in Minnesota. The goal is to prevent youth recruitment by overseas extremist groups such as Isis or al-Shabaab. 

But even before any specifics of the program have been announced, the program has engendered dramatic hostility and division within the Muslim Somali community. Those opposed to the premise of the program point out that 96% of domestic terrorism is committed by white men. The exact figure is disputed, but all statistics have it at more than 90%. 

“The idea that this Muslim community needs help, itself for this issue is problematic,” says Jaylani Hussein the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN). “Because now you’re saying that countering violent extremism is only from one community. The threat comes from one community, the threat is only identified within one community, that community needs a program. The whole premise is wrong. This program, no matter how good it is, is flawed from its principle.” 

Those who support the program are welcoming of new resources to their community, particularly if they will keep any brewing problem contained. 

The conflict derives from the perceived radicalization of several individuals from Minnesota. Between 2008 and 2013, about 40 young men left Minneapolis to join al-Shabaab, the militant, radical Islamist insurgent group at war in Somalia, between approximately 2008 and 2013. Since then, 11 people from the Twin Cities have been charged with planning to leave for Syria to join Isis. Authorities believe Isis is focusing its US recruitment efforts on Somali Muslims in Minnesota because of the state’s history, and a potential pre-existing recruitment infrastructure.


Six young men charged with planning to leave Minnesota for Syria to join Isis are awaiting trial in February. The boys claim they were entrapped, but one is now expected to change his plea to guilty. 

“We have a terror recruiting problem in Minnesota,” Luger said in April.

Opponents of the CVE program point out that these 40 individuals make up less than 0.3% of Minnesota’s Somali population. 

Osman says that even though she is the mother of two young boys, Isis has “no relevance” to her life. “I don’t even think about [Isis] – I look at the news and I’m like OK they’re just talking rubbish, and I turn it off. Because my life is already more of just trying to think about how I am going to raise my family, what is good for them, my boys are my number one priority.” 

Already, the CVE pilot program has been re-branded with a new name, Building Community Resilience. Luger’s office says it captures the essence of his vision: to keep teens from Minnesota from traveling to the Middle East and blowing themselves up. Luger says it will do so by providing $216,000 in federal funds – in addition to other local and private support – which will be disbursed to community groups through a grant-making organization.

The social services supported by the funding serve as crime prevention, he contends. 

But a statement issued from a coalition protesting the program asserted: “The Minnesota Muslim community is united over its growing concerns of the CVE pilot program, which so far has only alienated the very communities it was seeking to influence. While attempting to derail the communities’ own initiative to enhance its ability to build community resilience.” 

Inherent distrust

When Luger became US attorney in February of 2014, he rolled up his sleeves and made it a priority to meet with Somali Muslim community leaders across the state, learning their feelings, thoughts and concerns. The CVE product was directly shaped by the issues raised to Luger, though it’s now being protested by some of the same people with whom Luger consulted. 

There’s distrust of the seemingly direct involvement from the attorney general’s office, as well as the funding from the federal government. Those opposed also think the pilot program’s emphasis on violent extremism does not accurately reflect the problems facing the community. 

“I came to America when I was a child, when I was seven years old. I have seen a lot of the issues that our kids are facing. You know, I have been to a classroom where I don’t understand anything,” remembered Saciido Shaie, a member of the Minnesota Juvenile Justice Advisory Council. “I don’t understand the language. I don’t understand what the teacher is asking me. I take my homework home and my mom doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t write the language. And I’m stuck with all this homework, no one is helping me, all these things. So for me going to school was going to hell.”

Shaie is one of many parents who are concerned about Somali Muslim youth. Minnesota has the worst or second-worst graduation rates among for non-white students, and the possibility of falling in with a gang or into a life of crime is high. “Many kids don’t know where they belong – Isis, al-Shabaab or a gang. They join all that is available to them,” she said.

She wants more resources for the children and teens in the community, but she doesn’t want it to come with the tag of “terrorism”, or “violence”. Despite the re-branding of the campaign, her concerns remain. 

But the T-word carries a lot of weight for organizations seeking support, argues Fartun Abdi, a 24-year-old graduate of the University of Chicago and a current PhD student at the University of Minnesota studying the roots of radicalization. “There’s organizations in the community, and I don’t really feel comfortable to say ‘so and so and so’ but there’s organizations in the community that do make this a big issue in order to get more funding.

“That doesn’t mean the funding won’t go toward social services, but it does come with the ‘terrorism’ tag. ‘Many of our kids become radicalized at some point’ – that’s what the government wants to hear, that’s what these folks want to hear. So when you give them that, of course they’re going to fund you and give you resources and connect you to the right people.”

That there are imams on the taskforce is also a concern to imam Hassan Jaamici Mohamud, who believes it conflates church and state, and could cause distrust among the congregations. 

“For the US attorney’s office, the office that’s supposed to prosecute people, to join social service initiatives, that creates a lot of suspicion among the community,” explained Jaamici Mohamud. 

Some like Sadik Warfa think the program is a potential forum for government surveillance. He’s suspicious of the chief prosecutor’s involvement in social services. Warfa also fears the program will isolate the Somalis in the city, and further pigeonhole Muslims around the country as a problematic, violent population that requires special attention and funds. 

In 2012 the FBI honored Ka Joog, a group that provides free after-school and mentorship programs, with the FBI director’s community leadership award for being “an organization that goes beyond the traditional sense of community service and has a profound effect on their community”. But in partnership with the county attorney’s office, a program dubbed “be@school” tracks students who have a number of unexcused absences, and then involves their families. 

The FBI’s recognition of Ka Joog, and the participation of two of their staff on the CVE taskforce (one is the chair) has fueled the fear that the social services proposed are secretly mixing with surveillance and policing.

Being labeled a potential violent extremist could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, some parents fear. “Imagine my son being defined as one of those, you know, at risk for Isis or whatever – it’s like setting up for a failure out there,” Shaie said.

The media doesn’t help, defining her son as “Somali” and “Muslim” instead of a kid. “What I don’t want to see is an innocent child, who grew up here, who was born here, this is what they know, to be leveled by whatever ideology we have,” she said. 

‘Money for soccer and basketball’

The chair of the CVE taskforce, Abdimalik Mohamed, is sensitive to the notion that Somalis – out of all Muslims – are being targeted by the CVE. But he says Somalis are in a lower financial bracket than their Arab counterparts in America, and that makes them more vulnerable to recruitment from gangs at home and abroad. That’s why they need the resources. 

“How is it a problem for us to get money for soccer and basketball?” he said. 

In fact, he’s appreciative of the government’s involvement. “How many communities [can call the US attorney] and say, hey we don’t like what you’re doing, can you do this differently?” he asked.

Abdisalam Adam, a religious leader and another committee member says that many Somalis don’t trust the government enough.

Abdi, the scholar who is studying the roots of radicalization, is also a member of the CVE taskforce and the decision of whether to join weighed on her heavily. 

“I felt like it was a responsibility to be there and at least contribute my perspective,” she said of her choice. Abdi doesn’t deny that surveillance is an issue: “People have a reason to be scared.” She went on to point out that some NGOs, even those run by Somalis, are viewed with suspicion. “When you think about Ka Joog, it’s because of the work they did with radicalization and the FBI. It’s not an after-school program.” 

Mohamed, the chair of the CVE taskforce and the director of international affairs at Ka Joog, says even though the percentage might be small right now, the purpose of the CVE program is prevention. Mohamed also hates the idea of a Somali Muslim reputation for violence. That is one of the reasons he is leading the initiative. He said passionately: “We’re guiding kids toward the right path before they leave [for Syria] tomorrow and everyone says’ oh look at the Somali community’.”

Fears of more departures were announced at an event in mid-August. Though he acknowledged details were hazy: “We’re now telling you that a number of Somalis, including women and men, have left in previous weeks,” said Abdirizak Bihi, a member of the CVE taskforce said to a crowd in Somali, according to a video of his remarks obtained by MPR News. “We’re also informing you that a large number is on its way to leave.”

Ka Joog will be expanding its projects with the CVE funds, not inputting new anti-radicalization plans. 

The taskforce is frustrated, and worries that personal politics could prohibit progress. Tit-for-tat press conferences have been scheduled and nasty emails exchanged. Both sides blame the other for politicking.

To assuage these fears, the US attorney’s office and the Somali American taskforce signed a memorandum of understanding that the program will not be used for surveillance or to collect intelligence. 

Abdirizak Bihi, a member of the taskforce said: “I would like to tell people who are scaring off resources that they should understand the risks they are creating among our community.” 

But Osman insists that she does not consider her sons joining Isis the predominant risk. 

“I’m basically afraid that the generation to come will be a target of misunderstanding or just defamation of character,” said Osman. “I’d rather think about how I’m going to pay for college.”


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