For Somalis, schism of mistrust widens

A new push by the FBI is fostering fear, anger and a dilemma of how to show loyalty to two communities.

When the FBI approached the young women at the University of Minnesota, they said they didn't mind talking.

But the women, both second-year students who don't want their names used because they fear for their safety, said the investigation into whether missing Somali men from Minnesota have been recruited by terrorists to fight in their homeland has left many students caught between wanting to help investigators find the truth and facing scorn from some in their community.

"On both sides, there is misunderstanding," one of the women said. "Americans see all of us as terrorists. And on the Somali side, people look at anyone who talks as snitches."

Said the other: "I just feel that everybody is taking it out of proportion."

The interviews have fueled what was already a contentious relationship between the Minnesota chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the FBI. On Wednesday, CAIR sent letters to area high schools, colleges and universities, asking that they provide legal support to Somali students who have been questioned on campus by the FBI. The FBI has ended formal relations with CAIR chapters nationally over their alleged connections to the funding of terror groups.

"CAIR's concern is that the community doesn't know what their rights are," said Taneeza Islam, CAIR's civil rights director. "When you don't understand what your rights are, you are more vulnerable in those situations."

Islam added that the FBI's decision to discontinue its outreach efforts through CAIR "is a huge loss for them."

Separately Wednesday, FBI agents raided three Minneapolis money-transfer businesses that mainly serve the Somali community, seeking records of financial transactions to several African and Middle East countries. While it's unclear whether the investigations are directly connected, the news fueled more anxiety in Minnesota's Somali community, which has been waiting anxiously for an outcome to the federal investigation regarding the mising men.

Willing to talk

One of the women interviewed by the FBI is a leader in a 400-student organization at the university that focuses on Somali "cultural awareness and educational activities."

In December, one of her friends who works for the University of Minnesota police approached her, saying the FBI would like to talk about her organization. The agent, she said, was polite and made it clear she could refuse to talk.

"He wanted to know how we got funded and what activities we do," she said of the 20-minute interview. He also wanted to know "how some of the missing boys were involved in the organization," she said, adding that she never felt pressured.

Two male students who were part of the group have not been seen for months, she added.

Both women say they know people who have been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury that has been hearing testimony. Some spoke willingly to investigators at first, but later decided to quit cooperating.

Those are the people who now are complaining about the FBI's actions, one of the women said.

In a statement, CAIR said Somali students have reported that federal agents have approached them in libraries and while they are walking to class.

An FBI spokesman said that all interviews have been voluntary.

The two students said Thursday that they saw nothing wrong with the FBI's actions.

"Whatever is happening in the community, we should fix it, you know," said the student leader. "The FBI, they're trying to fix it."

E.K. Wilson, special agent for the FBI in Minneapolis, declined Thursday to elaborate on the reasons for the raids at three south Minneapolis businesses a day earlier. An affidavit filed in federal court in St. Louis with the search warrants has been sealed.

The businesses searched are Qaran Express and Aaran Financial, located in the Karmel Mall near W. Lake Street and Pillsbury Avenue S., and North American Money Transfer Inc., also known as Mustaqbal Express, at the Village Market Mall, at E. 24th Street and Chicago Avenue S.

Worries about wiring money

"We do not know what is going on," said Abdmajid Hussein, a computer technician and salesman at the Mustaqbal Express. He added that the FBI "told us we cooperated very well.''

Abdirahman Omar, the general manager at Mustaqbal Express, said Thursday that several customers who stopped earlier in the day wanted to know if the business had been closed, and whether they could continue to wire money back home.

"They have a fear as well. ... They just want to make sure we are doing the service we are supposed to do," Omar said.

jwalsh@startribune.com • 612-673-7428 richm@startribune.com • 612-673-4425

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