They have known each other barely a month, but their lives are linked by a shared story — the struggle to find a new identity in a new land.
One is a quiet, lanky Somali-American teen from Minneapolis, arrested by the FBI last fall and accused of trying to join a brutal terrorist group in the Middle East.
The other is a Somali-American schoolteacher who came to the United States when he was 12 without a hint of English on his tongue. He teaches history at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, where he’s the coach of a scrappy debate team and an eloquent instructor who shows his students the power of words to change minds.
Today, Abdullahi Yusuf and Ahmed Amin find their paths intertwined — drawn into an intensifying global terrorism fight through an unusual new experiment to see if radicalized Somali-American youths can be talked off the path of violence and extremism.
Amin and a team of religious scholars and teachers pulled together by Heartland Democracy, a Minneapolis nonprofit serving at-risk youths, have been assigned by a federal judge to mentor Yusuf, an 18-year-old who, like the six young men arrested on conspiracy charges last week, stands accused of trying to leave the United States to be a terrorist. U.S. District Chief Judge Michael Davis diverted Yusuf to the Heartland project in what is thought to be a first for the federal court system in a terror case.
“Someone’s life is on the line,” said Amin. “Many [of the accused] are great kids, but kids who are lost. It’s for us to help them discover who they are — and not who they are told they are by being brainwashed.”
With Minnesota thrust again into the international struggle against Islamist violence, Amin and his colleagues also find themselves walking a path that could lead to a new form of justice in such cases.
“This is all new territory for us,” said Mary McKinley, Heartland’s executive director.
Yusuf came to the attention of federal investigators in the Twin Cities last spring, when he applied for an expedited passport but couldn’t answer basic questions about his plans to travel to Istanbul. He would be the first of nearly a dozen young Somali-Minnesotans now caught up in a yearlong federal grand jury investigation. The FBI placed him under surveillance and, a few weeks later, stopped him as he tried to board an overseas flight at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
From the first, Yusuf showed signs that his life could be redeemed. An FBI agent testified that, after Yusuf was stopped at the airport in May, he ceased associating with other suspects in the terrorism investigation. Considered low-risk, he was an ideal candidate for Heartland Democracy’s new effort.
After Yusuf was arrested and charged, in November, Davis made it clear that he was keeping him on a short tether. He ordered Yusuf to wear a GPS-tracking ankle bracelet and to check in frequently with probation authorities after his first court appearance.
Yusuf, then a student at Inver Hills Community College, didn’t disappoint the judge. Around the time Davis was considering the Heartland diversion project, Yusuf’s GPS unit went off randomly. “Call Officer now,” it read. The young man was in a philosophy class and didn’t have his cellphone — it had been confiscated by the FBI.
“He ran home 2 miles to call his probation officer,” an attorney wrote in her argument to show Yusuf was a good candidate for diversion.
After pleading guilty last winter, Yusuf was assigned to a halfway house.
Living in two worlds
Amin and his colleagues are forbidden to discuss their conversations with Yusuf. Nevertheless, the case is producing powerful insights into the minds of young Somali-Americans who present a deep and troubling puzzle.
When they confronted him at the Twin Cities airport, agents asked Yusuf whether his parents knew where he was going. He said he had told them he was “Gonna be gone for a while.” Asked whether his father knew where was, Yusuf replied, “I don’t think he cares.”
Then, at some of the first meetings documented by Heartland in court filings for Yusuf’s case, he shared more intimate pain, exposing exactly the kind of wounds that Heartland wants to try to mend.
Yusuf described living parallel but separate lives — by night an obedient son of Somali refugees, by day an American high school student who enjoyed the freedoms and pleasures of a secular society — customs unimaginable in his family’s homeland.
“It’s like we young people live in two different worlds,” he explained. “We go to school, we speak English, we are American. And we go home and when we walk in the door it’s like walking into a different country.”
At home, he added, “It’s like Somalia, and our parents are very worried about what’s going on there.”
Amin sees Yusuf and his generation as “the hybrids.” Some, he said, have embraced the life of an American teen. Others remain suspicious of what can still seem a strange culture.
“I work in a school where there are kids who have not bought into America,” Amin said. “It’s almost as if you have to sell them the idea that there is a good life that America affords you. We have to implore them. I read where one of the defendants said he was through with America and wanted to burn his ID. Well, if you don’t have the role models, that’s what can happen.
“These are the kids trying to figure it out,” Amin continued. “The ‘right’ question to start asking is not just about being a Somali-American and embracing this country and democracy. It’s ‘What does it mean to be a Somali-Muslim-American?’ ”
Amin is confronted by Somali parents who don’t want their daughters to read certain books; he leaves school at day’s end knowing that all the energy he put into “trying to explain that the Constitution is a living document” will likely fall by the wayside in some students’ homes.
“What is being taught in the home?” he asked. “What are the attitudes? Civic education about embracing this country and democracy, does that match up at home?”
Of the more than 20 Somali-Minnesotans in the first wave of departures, who left to fight in Somalia, roughly one-third had — like Amin himself — attended Roosevelt.
Good kids, bad choices?
Mary McKinley is a realist. A veteran of civic nonprofits such as the Open Society Institute and the Aspen Institute, she returned to Minnesota five years ago after a long career overseas and in Washington, D.C. She bristles at any suggestion that she’s merely, as she puts it, “the bleeding heart liberal” out of touch with reality. She knows her organization’s curriculum — civic engagement for at-risk youths — is not going to work for many of the people who are charged with terrorism.
In January correspondence to the U.S. Public Defender’s Office in Minneapolis, whose attorneys were representing Yusuf, McKinley was blunt.
“Make no mistake: We realize this would be an experiment, a pretrial release program unlike any other, especially in dealing with the ISIL threat and the counterterrorism efforts that are the focus of the FBI, the U.S. Attorney and the White House.
“This community has been the victim of benign neglect and we know the consequences,’’ she added. “Youth involved in violence, gangs, drug use and trafficking, high rates of poverty, extremely high unemployment rates, and now terrorism.”
In an interview last week, McKinley elaborated.
“I don’t use the term, ‘de-radicalization.’ Our program works with young people to connect with themselves, their community and their world. We believe that when young people make bad choices — some extremely bad choices — there’s still an opportunity to turn your life around.”