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Minnesota leads the nation in the number of people who have left or sought to leave the country to fight with terrorists aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Syria, according to a scathing congressional report that says the U.S. and western countries have failed to disrupt the flow of combatants to the Middle East.
Released Tuesday by the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, the report specifically cites two Somali-American Minnesotans who joined or tried to join ISIL, highlighting its online recruiting success through peer-to-peer recruiting that relies on social media and sophisticated online messaging techniques.
Young fighters from at least 19 states have tried to join terrorists in Syria since the start of that country’s civil war in 2011. Minnesota recruits made up 26 percent of the sample of 58 cases reviewed by the committee’s bipartisan task force. California and New York had the second most recruits, with each state making up 12 percent, according to findings.
“This report is alarming and it’s really very worrisome,” said Sadik Warfa, deputy director of the Global Somali Diaspora based in Minneapolis. “I worry about the stigma and the prospect of our community being marginalized. But in the end, it’s up to us as Somali-Americans to really change our image. And as Minnesotans, we need to be asking what can we do to put these kinds of people into our mainstream here instead of over there.”
More than 250 Americans have attempted or succeeded in reaching Syria and Iraq to fight with terrorist groups, intelligence officials estimate. “We have largely failed to stop Americans from traveling overseas to join jihadists,” the task force declared. “A handful of suspects were stopped in other countries, but it appears the majority — 85 percent — still managed to evade American law enforcement on its way to the conflict zone.”
The task force said it could identify only 28 cases in which federal authorities stopped suspects before they left for the Middle East. Eight of those involved Minnesotans who conspired since March 2014 to leave the U.S. for Syria but who were stopped by FBI agents. Those men, all Somali-Americans, are in custody. Three have pleaded guilty in recent weeks to conspiring to join ISIL.
Those targeted for recruiting tend to be men in their early 20s, although more than 30 American women have joined or attempted to join ISIL. Among them was Yusra Ismail, 20, of St. Paul, who last year was charged with misusing a passport to travel to Syria, where her family says she now is working as a nurse.
“Today, we are witnessing the largest global convergence of jihadists in history,” the task force noted. “Individuals from more than 100 countries have migrated to the conflict zone in Syria and Iraq since 2011. Over 25,000 foreign fighters have traveled to the battlefield to enlist.”
Locally, the FBI office in the Twin Cities recently added a fourth anti-terrorism squad to its intelligence operations related to people in the Twin Cities interested in becoming jihadists. At the same time — and separately — the office is deeply involved in building better community relations with the Somali community, pledging that those programs and relationships will never dovetail into intelligence gathering operations.
In Washington, U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn, said the report “only underscores the urgent need for adequate resources to fight terrorist recruitment.” He noted the need to build stronger community outreach programs while refraining from stereotyping. “It’s important that we don’t indiscriminately target members of one community,” he said.
Republican Rep. John Kline, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and long a hawkish critic of the Obama administration, said the report proves “homegrown terrorism remains a serious issue in Minnesota.” Kline said it also demonstrates the Obama administration “does not have a comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS and Islamist terrorists.”
The report draws on several of the FBI’s terrorism investigations in Minnesota to illustrate the daunting complexities authorities face. Online propaganda and social media are major factors in U.S. recruitment, key influences that appear to have drawn Minnesota defendants to ISIL. In 80 percent of cases, researchers found examples of would-be recruits downloading extremist propaganda, promoting it online. Some communicated with ISIL fighters in Syria through secure messaging apps such as Surespot, or posed questions to overseas jihadists via the anonymous website Ask.fm.
Two of the three Minnesota men who have pleaded guilty to terrorism charges said watching ISIL propaganda about Syrians under attack from their own government made them determined to help create an Islamic state.
The case of Abdi Nur
The task force highlighted the case of Abdi Nur, a 20-year old Minneapolis man who succeeded in getting to Syria in June 2014, barely eluding FBI agents who learned of his identity just hours after he flew out of Minneapolis.
“Once in the conflict zone, he spent months persuading his friends in Minneapolis to join him,” the report said of Nur. “His peer-to-peer recruiting nearly worked, as six of his friends attempted to leave the United States for Syria; they were arrested by the FBI this April.”
Abdullahi Yusuf, a friend of Nur’s who was among at least a dozen conspirators from the Twin Cities, also was cited in the report. FBI agents stopped Yusuf at the Minneapolis airport the day before Nur left. Yusuf pleaded guilty in February to supporting terrorists. He is one of two Somali-American men cooperating with the FBI and prosecutors about the conspiracy involving their former cohorts.
U.S. District Judge Michael Davis made an unusual decision in the months following Yusuf’s arrest, releasing him to a halfway house before his case went to trial. Davis wanted to know whether Yusuf might be de-radicalized by taking part in a program designed to foster civic engagement. “The experiment fell apart because a box-cutter knife was found hidden in Yusuf’s room last spring,” the report noted. Davis ordered Yusuf back to jail, where he awaits sentencing. Yusuf is continuing his civics lessons while in custody.
U.S. authorities have interdicted only a fraction of the hundreds of Americans who sought to travel to conflict zones in Syria and Iraq, researchers found, and several dozen of those managed to get back into the U.S. The nation still lacks a national strategy to combat terrorist travel, the report found.
“There is currently no comprehensive global database of foreign fighter names,” the report stated. “Instead, countries including the United States rely on a patchwork system for swapping extremist identities, increasing the odds foreign fighters will slip through the cracks.”
A further complication is “gaping” security weaknesses in Europe that endanger the U.S. because aspiring fighters can travel to battle zones and return to western countries, the task force noted. “Despite improvements since 9/11, foreign partners are still sharing information about terror suspects that is intermittent and often incomplete,” the task force said.
At least four men with Minnesota roots have been killed fighting for ISIL. Intelligence officials say that overall, more than 20 Americans who joined the group have died.