Minnesota Somali community is focus of congressional hearing on Al-Shabab

  • Article by: JEREMY HERB , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 28, 2011 - 3:27 PM

Rep. Keith Ellison calls Homeland Security committee's focus on Islam when investigating terrorists "disgusting." Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., says he "will not back down."

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House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. presides over the committee's hearing on Islamic radicalization in the U.S.

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WASHINGTON - Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., may not have been allowed to testify, but he still made his presence felt at Wednesday's congressional hearing examining Islamic radicalization.

Walking in on crutches a half-hour into the hearing, Ellison took a seat in the second row and listened to the four witnesses -- two from Minnesota -- at House Homeland Security Chairman Rep. Peter King's third hearing this year on the subject.

This hearing again dealt with recruiting efforts in Minnesota's Somali community by the terror group Al-Shabab -- a group federal officials say has ties to Al-Qaida. William Anders Folk, a former Twin Cities federal prosecutor, and St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith told the committee about the terror group's recruitment and law enforcement attempts to stop them.

"The dangerousness and effectiveness of Al-Shabab's rhetoric is clear from Minnesota's experience with this organization," said Folk, who prosecuted more than a dozen Al-Shabab terrorism cases that originated in Minnesota.

King, a New York Republican, released the committee's results from an investigation Wednesday, which found more than 40 Americans have turned up fighting for Al-Shabab in Somalia, a higher number than previously reported. Fifteen were killed, and at least 21 remain unaccounted for and pose a "direct threat" to the United States, according to the report.

Many of those cases stem from Minnesota, where more than 20 Somali youth have disappeared and later turned up in Somalia with the terror group.

Focusing on Muslims

Like King's first March hearing on Islamic radicalization, critics questioned the targeting of one religious group, particularly just days after an anti-Muslim terrorist in Norway killed 76 people.

Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, the committee's top Democrat, pointed to the Norway tragedy as one reason the hearings should not solely focus on Muslim extremists.

"This incident makes plain that the madness of terrorism cannot be easily confined to any one religion, one people or one nation," Thompson said.

Ellison said all of Wednesday's witnesses had something useful to contribute to the discussion on terrorism. But he again questioned King's motives to single out Muslims.

"I really feel it's just extremely bad form, bad politics, and not within the spirit of our American Constitution to kind of go after a religious minority group," Ellison said in an interview after the hearing. "I just think that's totally disgusting."

King went on the offensive in his opening statement, railing against the "vacuous ideologues at the New York Times" and others for exploiting the Norway tragedy to attack him.

"There is no equivalency in the threat to our homeland from a deranged gunman and the international terror apparatus of Al-Qaida and its affiliates, such as Al-Shabab, who are recruiting people in this country and have murdered thousands of Americans in their jihad attacks," King said. "I will not back down from holding these hearings."

Ellison had asked to testify at the hearing, but King refused, saying Wednesday's hearing was an extension of the first hearing when Ellison did testify.

Ellison said he would request to speak at any future hearings on Islamic radicalization. "I'm not going to bow out," he said. "As long as he's doing this, I'm going to be trying to correct the record and help bring our country to a better place."

Beating Al-Shabab at home

To demonstrate Al-Shabab's recruiting effectiveness, Folk pointed to an October 2008 bombing in Somalia, when Shirwa Ahmed, of Minneapolis, became the first U.S. citizen known to carry out a suicide attack.

Within a week, Folk said Wednesday, a group of Minnesotans left the country to join Al-Shabab in Somalia.

Folk said the best approach to combat Al-Shabab in the United States is to mix law enforcement and intelligence-gathering with community outreach.

Smith talked up efforts St. Paul police have made in the local Somali-American community to reach out through athletic leagues and school study programs to build trust. "We have come to a better understanding that to effectively prevent and combat the threat of radicalization we need to think beyond our traditional law enforcement notions and strategies," Smith said.

Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723 Twitter: @StribHerb

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