Muslim leaders in the Twin Cities accused the U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday of using its new community counterterrorism program as cover that would allow the FBI to spy on the Somali community.

The harsh criticism, voiced by local members of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), came on the eve of a White House summit where Minnesota’s U.S. attorney and supportive Somali groups will showcase outreach plans designed to counter terrorist recruitment of local Somali youth by offering them an array of education programs and job opportunities.

“We are concerned that those groups that receive funding will be seen as agents of law enforcement,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR in Minnesota. “Allowing the federal criminal prosecutor and law enforcement agencies to engage in social services and organize mentorship and after-school programs — only in the Muslim community … blurs the line between community outreach and intelligence gathering.”

Hussein said outreach programs should be funded by foundations and state government, rather than a federal law enforcement agency that is prosecuting Muslims for recruiting and supporting terrorists.

Hassan Mohamud, an imam and director at the Minnesota Da’wah Institute in St. Paul, spoke alongside Hussein at a news conference attended by nearly a dozen CAIR leaders. “We don’t want the mosques to become places of spying,” Mohamud said.

He also cautioned that Muslim children in public schools could be stigmatized and targeted for simply attending the federally funded programs. “The right place to start these programs is in the mosques because with programs run by the government there is a stigma,” he said.

Building trust

Minnesota’s U.S. attorney, Andy Luger, and FBI agents in the Twin Cities have repeatedly said the government will not mix outreach efforts with intelligence gathering.

Fear of such tactics stems in part from a 2009 directive, approved by FBI directors in Washington, that allowed agents in at least five U.S. cities to use community outreach as an excuse to conduct intelligence gathering activity on Somalis. The Minneapolis FBI office refused to follow the directive, arguing that it would endanger trusting relationships they had built with community leaders. The directive was rescinded by the Obama administration in 2010.

Beside the Twin Cities, the Justice Department is funding outreach programs in Boston and Los Angeles for one year to gauge what kinds of mentoring and after-school programs can help dissuade young American Muslims from joining extremist groups or leaving to fight in the Middle East.

For months leading up to the Washington summit, Luger has met with religious and political factions within the Somali community, assuring them that the FBI will never be involved in such outreach.

Since last spring, a federal grand jury in Minneapolis has been investigating Somalis in the Twin Cities who are being recruited to fight for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIL). Over the past year, about 15 Minnesotans, mostly young Somali men and teens, have flown to the Middle East to join up with terrorists, according to federal authorities. Last year, three Somali-American men originally from the Twin Cities were killed fighting with terrorists.

At the same time, a debate has emerged within the local Somali community over the best approach to turn back extremist recruitment efforts.

Omar Jamal, executive director of American Friends of Somalia, criticized CAIR’s unwillingness to support Luger. “The community has to give this program a chance to succeed,” he said, accusing CAIR of “fear mongering.”

And in a concurrent news conference held at the Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis, activists who support the federal outreach effort called for enlisting financial aid from the Minneapolis School District and the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Mohamud Noor, director of the Confederation of Somali Community, said the current piecemeal approaches to funding Somali youth programs is failing. He said a “significant investment” in early childhood programs, job skills and mental health services is critical.

 

Star Tribune reporter Mila Koumpilova contributed to this report.