The recent mass shooting in San Bernardino is lending new urgency to Minnesota’s push to thwart radical recruitment.
The attack, considered the first homegrown terror act inspired by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, has stoked fresh anxiety in Twin Cities Muslim and immigrant communities — both about the militant group’s propaganda targeting local youths and about stigmatization leaders believe is on the rise.
To law officials such as Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, the California attack highlights the need to rethink strategies largely focused on the exodus of would-be jihadis rather than on domestic threats. Minnesota is a great case study, says counterterrorism expert William Braniff: The state, which federal officials believe has produced more would-be foreign fighters than other states, also boasts a Muslim community that’s exceptionally engaged with efforts to counter extremism.
“Minnesota is not just some kind of black sheep,” said Braniff, executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. “It’s also a role model.”
In the past year, eight young men from the Twin Cities were charged after allegedly attempting to travel to Syria. Three have pleaded guilty. A trial is scheduled for May.
The federal government also chose Minneapolis as one of three cities to host pilot programs aimed at countering radical recruitment through youth engagement programs. After months of heated debate, the project, which has drawn $900,000 in federal, state and private funding, is slated to get off the ground early next year. Some supporters say the San Bernardino attack is adding a sense of urgency.
In September, the U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota announced it tapped the Minneapolis-based nonprofit YouthPrise to divvy up funds for mentoring, after-school programs and an initiative to connect young people with job training and employers. YouthPrise will host a meeting for organizations interested in applying for funding next week; it will kick off the application process in January. YouthPrise did not respond to a request for comment.
‘Home is always our priority’
But Jibril Afyare, the spokesman for a community task force that has advised U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger on the project, said the group feels the first-of-its-kind prevention effort is off to a promising start. The task force is gearing up to host a community meeting this week to regroup in the wake of the San Bernardino attack and the fallout from it, such as the proposal from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to ban all Muslims from entering the United States.
“We believe in working with the U.S. government to prevent anyone from leaving or doing something at home,” he said. “At home is always our priority.”
Abdirizak Bihi, who also serves on the task force, says news from San Bernardino sharpened worries that the initiative is losing momentum more than a year after federal officials first announced it. He says he has been disappointed with the $216,000 federal investment.
Critics of the program, such as Jaylani Hussein of CAIR-MN, argue that it is divisive and threatens to stigmatize the local Somali community.
But community leaders agree the year hasn’t delivered only bad news: They stress that since the April arrests of six Minneapolis men accused of trying to leave for the Middle East, there have been no reports of successful or attempted departures from the state. They credit informal community discussion and vigilance — not just the chilling effect the arrests and international attacks on ISIL-controlled territory might have had.
“Our community has always been very aggressive in trying to challenge radical groups,” said Hussein.
Luger’s office and the Minneapolis FBI office declined to comment.
Some missing pieces
Some believe the Minnesota response to radical recruitment is still missing key pieces. Stanek, who recently joined a federal task force to rethink the country’s counterterrorism strategy, said local law officers have a better shot at spotting attackers like the husband and wife in San Bernardino, who were apparently inspired by ISIL propaganda but did not coordinate with operatives overseas.
Stanek also would like to see a community-based program to intervene with young people when family members spot signs of radicalization — one that allows families to seek help without fear that young people would be arrested on the spot. Luger has previously discussed the idea as well.
“When a mom comes to me with a son who’s getting radicalized, there’s no place I can send her,” said Stanek, who is traveling to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of the U.S. House homeland security committee. “A lot of work still needs to be done.”
Bob Fletcher, the former Ramsey County sheriff who now leads the Center for Somalia History Studies, agrees the local response needs an “off-ramp before prosecution”: “Parents that we need to rely on to tell us about changes in behavior are increasingly reluctant to do that. What they are seeing are long sentences for kids who are trying to leave.”
Braniff, the University of Maryland expert, says arrests of would-be jihadis and the international bombing campaign against ISIL have made joining the group less appealing, but they haven’t taken away the resolve of those influenced by the group’s ideology to act.
Local backlash seen
Hussein of CAIR says the high profile the issue of radical recruitment has had in Minnesota might be adding to a backlash in the wake of the San Bernardino attack. The organization has received a slew of calls and social media reports about incidents involving Muslims in the state.
In recent days, Hussein said, a woman wearing a head scarf was almost driven off the road in the Twin Cities, and another was forced out of a light-rail train. CAIR is sending a letter to the Minnesota Department of Education asking officials to caution schools about an uptick in bullying of Muslim students.
Stanek says he has fielded questions in recent days about how the attack in California will change the work of his department, which has gotten recognition for its outreach to immigrant communities. He says he doesn’t expect much will change.
“This is about long-term relationships and long-term building of trust,” he said. “Reacting out of fear is not a good strategy.”