For many of her first 14 years in Minnesota, Hodan Hassan paid little attention to the threat of radical jihad. She had a son to raise and a demanding job as a psychotherapist.
That changed one morning three Septembers ago, when Hassan’s two teenage nieces were badly hurt during a terrorist shooting rampage at a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya — just weeks after they had visited her in the Twin Cities to look at colleges.
“There was a lot of anger I didn’t know what to do with,” Hassan said. “It’s not my style to pick up a gun and go shoot people. So my only other option was advocacy.”
Hassan has since become a central player in the fight to eradicate homegrown extremism in Minnesota, the site of a federal pilot project called Building Community Resilience. If successful, the experiment could help choke off the flow of supporters to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and smother the group’s influence in Minnesota — long a focus for terror recruitment.
“It is not a concept,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said recently. “It is real, and is something we all need to care about.”
But Hassan has discovered that the project faces daunting obstacles. It asks Somali-Minnesotans to trust and assist the Justice Department at a time when many are suspicious of — even hostile toward — federal investigations in their community. By remaining at the table, Hassan and her colleagues face questions from their peers in the country’s biggest Somali-American community, who ask if the project is helpful or harmful.
“Let me find out myself,” Hassan said. “I have a son who’s 12 years old. I don’t want him to be facing any of the things these young men are facing today. I don’t want to be one of the mothers sitting in court.”
After the Nairobi mall massacre, which killed at least 67 people, Hassan spent six months in Toronto with her nieces, applying her mental health expertise to their psychological wounds. Her anger followed her home.
So around the anniversary of the attack, Hassan approached Luger at one of several early community forums on Minnesota’s pilot project. She shared her take on why the slick extremist messaging had proved effective. Too many youths, she said, wage an internal struggle over what it means to be American and what it means to be Somali — a battle worsened by frustration with local educational and employment disparities and a fear of law enforcement.
Luger welcomed her aboard, and the project soon took Hassan to the White House and gave her the ear of top Minnesota officials in the U.S. Department of Justice.
Soon after the Washington trip, Hassan was tapped to lead a task force of local Somali-Americans that would help develop local tactics to eradicate those roots of extremism.
“I don’t know if I’m making any difference,” Hassan said during a rare break one afternoon, “but I’m telling myself at least I am trying.”
‘We are not a problem’
It wasn’t long before Hassan encountered pushback in the Somali community. One of the project’s two main prongs would be the development of “community-led intervention teams” — groups of Somali leaders and educators enlisted to identify and intervene with young people believed at risk for radicalization.
But as her task force began seeking volunteers, in the spring of 2015, the FBI conducted a series of raids in Minnesota targeting young Somali-Americans suspected of trying to join ISIL. The raids alarmed and angered many in the Somali community. Their anxieties mounted when three of the young men were convicted on federal terror charges in June after a grueling trial. Six others pleaded guilty before trial.
One summer evening after the trial, inside a popular Minneapolis community center, a dozen young Somali-Americans stood before an audience gathered to speak out against the federal anti-terrorism effort.
“Yes, we do want resources,” said one young man. “But we want it because we deserve it, not because we are a problem that needs to be solved.”
“Why is the DOJ involved in something like this when they should be taking care of criminals?” asked another.
The young critics are among several dozen allied community groups and religious centers, including the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to speak out against the federal pilot project. They argue that the effort, dubbed Countering Violent Extremism, is based on the premise that religion or nationality determine someone’s propensity for violence. They have called it “fundamentally discriminatory.”
When Luger introduced Minnesota’s arm of the federal project, he explained that it focused on the Somali community because it had been “disproportionately targeted” by terrorist recruiters since at least 2007.
That hasn’t convinced some longtime local Somali activists like Burhan Mohumed. Mohumed, 26, helped organize the July community center meeting and has been a vocal opponent of the Minneapolis pilot.
“Anybody in the law enforcement community, they’re not there to see how you’re doing — they’re there to ask for information,” Mohumed said in an interview. “Where can we go if you see me as a problem?”
It’s not just Somali leaders who question the Justice Department’s strategy. Nationally, civil liberties groups have criticized an FBI plan to recruit community leaders to intervene with anyone the bureau believes is at risk for violent extremism. They also objected to law enforcement taking a role in social services and schools, and said they worried that the FBI could continue investigating individuals even after they were deemed rehabilitated by the committees.
Hassan soon realized that community skepticism could torpedo Minnesota’s youth intervention project. Large swaths of the Somali community believed they would simply become tools of federal surveillance. “Why bother building a vehicle you know is going to break down tomorrow?” she said.
Community resistance has also become a frustration for the local FBI office. Special Agent in Charge Richard Thornton said in an interview that he recognizes that a large portion of the Somali community is still not on board with the federal effort. Some want to work with federal officials and are doing so; others want to help but aren’t sure of their roles. Still others, he said, deny that there is a problem or want to blame the government, and a smaller radical segment is at the far end of the spectrum.
“We have a majority of the Minnesota Somali community that has not yet become a part of the solution in an effective way,” Thornton said.
Building a social network
In Abdirahman Mukhtar’s small office at the Brian Coyle Community Center, the walls are lined with photos of youth soccer clubs and riffs on blockbuster movie posters designed by students. At the only year-round hub for youths in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, Mukhtar helps manage popular summer day camps and soccer programs with unending waitlists.
Upon first hearing that the Justice Department chose Minneapolis as one of three pilot cities, Mukhtar counted himself among the skeptics. “No one really knew what the funds would be used for,” he said.
Mukhtar said his concerns eased after Luger’s office enlisted Youthprise, a nonprofit with a history of working with Somalis, to distribute a set of grants for services such as job-hunting, athletics and youth mediation training. This summer, he even accompanied two teenagers to the mediation training funded through the program.
Luger’s office has worked to insulate the grantees from normal law-enforcement functions. A contract between the U.S. attorney’s office and Youthprise, obtained and reviewed by the Star Tribune, prohibits using the program for law enforcement purposes or collecting participants’ identifying information.
But by funding a broad array of mental health and education programs, a counter-extremism program can lose focus on the small number of youth actually tempted by terrorist recruiting, said J.M. Berger, a counterterrorism researcher.
“There are a lot of elements that are good for a community even if you can’t say it definitely leads to a reduction in violent extremism,” said Berger, who is a fellow in George Washington University’s Program on Extremism and an associate fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism. “[But] education and unemployment are not reliable indicators of extremism.”
Minnesota’s pilot project was informed by a 2012 Homeland Security-funded study noting that young people’s “unaccountable times and unobserved spaces” are among a set of risk factors for growing vulnerable to radicalism.
Others like Mukhtar say the project is wise to address common social concerns of Somali youth. “Young people do not worry about someone knocking on their door recruiting them to join [ISIL],” Mukhtar said. “They worry about, ‘Is the gym going to be open? Where can I get employment? Am I going to graduate high school?’ ”
A glimmer of hope
One summer afternoon, shortly after the local ISIL trial, Hassan moderated a discussion with the family of Zacharia Abdurahman, one of the Minneapolis men who pleaded guilty in the case. Several dozen community members filled a conference room inside the U.S. attorney’s office, while lawyers and law enforcement officials observed.
Seated beside Hassan, relatives of Abdurahman expressed relief that the geography buff who once worked nights at a battered women’s shelter was still alive and not one of the many casualties of ISIL’s campaign abroad. But they also shared the grief of not being able to hug him during jail visits.
Yusuf Abdurahman, the defendant’s father, said Somali parents can no longer deny that terror recruitment is a problem in their midst. But he also made plain the challenge that lay ahead: He said his son displayed no outward signs that he wanted to go fight in Syria. He still played basketball, and loved reading his books.
As Yusuf Abdurahman and other relatives spoke that afternoon, Hassan became more hopeful about Minnesota’s pilot project. The mother of another defendant, Deqa Hussen, nodded silently in the back of the room. She has since joined Hassan’s Somali-American Task Force. Luger now says he hopes the gathering could be the first of several, lending Minnesota’s project some momentum. Attorneys for several defendants have confirmed that they are discussing details of future meetings.
“Looking at that family I saw hope,” Hassan said. “A parent speaking on that themselves, they can carry a lot of weight.”
As a parent herself, she wrestles with many of the same issues. Throughout the year, she has intentionally found times to have conversations with her own son: about navigating two identities, or interactions between police and people of color. She warned that he may need to work harder to get things that others take for granted. Years earlier, she had to explain why they were the only two passengers pulled aside at the airport for extra screening.
“These are conversations that will either make us or break us,” she said.
Time to move
Hassan anticipates that tension in the Somali community over the recent Minnesota ISIL case will persist at least until after the nine defendants are sentenced in November. Still, she has hope.
Last month, Hassan’s task force met again, this time in a room beneath a Lake Street nail salon that was once a Somali wedding hall. She took notes and Luger dropped in as the group considered the Abdurahman family panel discussion.
Several members of the task force said they have been approached by peers who said they no longer considered terror recruitment to be a theory exaggerated by the FBI. Yusuf Abdurahman has also visited with the task force, urging it to enlist more young faces — Somali-Americans born and educated here who may be better in tune with the experiences of their peers.
“I want more Hodans,” he said in an interview, “more people that represent our kids.”
Luger, who considers Hassan’s task force an important advisory body, has presented proposals for outreach events and fished for new directions the federal pilot project should take.
“I tend to want things to happen right away, and sometimes they take time,” Luger said as Hassan smiled.
Noting the promise of future family panel discussions, Hassan looked down at her agenda and sensed it was time to move forward.
“We’ve talked about this enough,” she said.