For the past few years, nearly every broadcast of the youth-focused radio program that Zarangez Navruzshoeva hosts in Tajikistan has been colored by updates on young Tajiks becoming jihadists in Syria.
Madina Nizomova, a women’s rights lawyer, can’t shake the story of a well-off family that lost two sons to the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). And Lola Dadobaeva helps the U.S. Embassy manage programs for vulnerable youth in a nation that has seen hundreds — including entire households and Tajikistan’s special forces chief — join the terror group since 2014.
They are among a delegation of seven Tajik women finishing a weeklong tour of the Twin Cities on Saturday after meeting with federal judges, law enforcement, elected officials and community groups to discuss the strengths women can wield in fighting radical recruitment at home. In several cases, they say, the week has been revealing for the similarities unearthed during their encounters.
“It was important to see that a world power like America and a small country like Tajikistan are facing the same issues,” Nizomova said through an interpreter. “We are all mothers, we all have children, we all have relatives and we want all of us to be safe to travel from one place to another. This fear, and this issue, is real for us.”
The delegation, which also includes social activists and a psychologist who volunteers in a community policing program, ends its visit Saturday with a panel discussion at the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis. They were brought to Minnesota by the Open World Leadership Center, a U.S. Congress-funded diplomacy effort, and are being hosted by the Friendship Force of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
During the group’s visit Tuesday with staff from the Minneapolis advocacy group Voice of East African Women, Deqa Hussen shared the story of her son Abdirizak Warsame, who was one of nine Twin Cities men sentenced last year after plotting to join ISIL in 2015. Hussen said her experience revealed that ISIL recruiters also target smart youths — Abdirizak was in his second year of college and known for his poetry. After FBI agents visited their home, Deqa sent Warsame to live with his father in Chicago to insulate him from influences. Two weeks after Hussen participated in a forum of mothers speaking out against terrorism recruitment, Warsame was arrested.
“He calls now and tells his siblings, ‘Listen to your mom. I wish I could listen to my mom from the beginning,’” Hussen told the group.
During a break in a trial, Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim met the group in his chambers to emphasize the value of antiterrorism programs large and small.
“If you set up small organizations, have community meetings and identify someone as an expert in radicalization and deradicalization — someone who can identify the signs someone is being recruited and can come talk to families — these activities can be stopped before they get too far along the way,” Tunheim said.
Minnesota is the only federal court district that operates a “disengagement” evaluation program that assesses terrorism defendants before trial and after conviction, and has a team of probation officials dedicated to supervising them after their release from prison. The delegates told Tunheim that many of the Tajik recruits were actually picked up on their way migrating to Russia in search of better job opportunities. The crisis has also prompted strict regulations prohibiting youth under 18 from attending mosques, they said. The government, however, has also experimented in amnesty for some foreign fighters who return home. Tunheim said the approach sounded good but suggested “some evaluation of if they may go back down this path or not.”
The group also met with staff from U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services, which is tasked with running the specialized evaluation program for terrorism defendants. One officer said the staff considered mothers and sisters of defendants “associate gatekeepers because they have a level of trust with the defendants that nobody else has.”
Later, Navruzshoeva noted a difference in access to trials. Most terror cases in Tajikistan are closed to the public, forcing the media to rely on anonymous reports or secondhand accounts from families.
Dadobaeva said a key challenge is to persuade families to work with law enforcement, rather than shun them.
“When it comes through law enforcement agents, this can be a turnaway for parents because when they come to them, [the families] say, ‘We’re not cooperating with you. You’re a danger to my son. You take him away and put him in prison.’ ”
Still, Hussen’s cautionary tale — and that of her imprisoned son — resonated with the women.
“I’m bringing her story to my community and telling my country,” said Rano Abutrobova, a member of the delegation.