Nationwide, more than 40 people have been charged with providing support to terrorist groups in Syria.
Almost a quarter of them are from one place: Minnesota.
Local Somali leaders and others who study radicalization are questioning why the state again finds itself the focus of recruitment efforts and federal prosecutions — years after more than two dozen Minnesotans left to join the Somalia-based militant group Al-Shabab.
“There’s not a definite answer,” said Abdisalam Adam, a Somali leader and educator. “Everybody’s struggling with the question.”
In all, law enforcement officials estimate that at least 40 Twin Cities residents have joined the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, got intercepted on their way, or are the focus of active investigations that could yield additional arrests. Most, though not all, have been young men of East African descent. Minnesota was even singled out in a recent slickly produced ISIL recruitment video.
Community leaders are debating what might make young Somali-Americans vulnerable to the lure of recruiters — even as they caution against painting the nation’s largest East African immigrant community with too broad a brush.
Adam says community discussion has touched on a variety of factors — “a sense of heavy-handedness” in U.S. foreign policy, the lack of appreciation among youths of the violence their parents fled, their inability to see through ISIL propaganda. Others are drawn by the allure of living in a strict Islamic state, perhaps explaining why U.S.-led airstrikes on ISIL have done little to stop the flow of foreign fighters to the area.
But some who have studied the issue believe ISIL’s recruiting success is tied up in connecting with the social networks of idealistic and often disaffected young men.
“ISIL is shaping its message to appeal to these groups of young men,” said Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies. “They appeal to young people’s desire to belong to something larger than themselves.”
Six Minneapolis men were charged in late April with trying to join ISIL, in what officials describe as a long-simmering plot involving nearly a dozen suspects. The men have pleaded not guilty, their attorneys and their families vigorously disputing the charges.
Of the 44 people charged after alleged attempts to join or back Syrian militants, 10 came from Minnesota, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The remainder were scattered across the country, a mix of converts to Islam, young college grads, U.S. military vets and middle-aged professionals. Some states with sizable East African immigrant communities, such as Washington, have not produced any defendants.
In Minnesota, most of those believed to have traveled to Syria or accused of trying to leave are young men of Somali descent, though not all.
Last year, the feds chose the metro area as one of three settings for a pilot program to counter jihadi recruitment. The program has drawn some pushback among local Somalis, who often chafe at the focus on the actions of a few dozen among a community of tens of thousands.
For many, this latest recruitment push is more confounding than the earlier departures to join Al-Shabab. While most in the community decried that group’s tactics, they understood the draw of fighting in their homeland following incursions by the Ethiopian military.
“In 2007 and 2008, these youths thought they were helping Somalia,” said Sadik Warfa, head of Minneapolis-based nonprofit Global Somali Diaspora. “But why are young people going to Syria or Iraq? We are so surprised.”
Law enforcement officials such as U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Andy Luger have suggested ISIL has tapped into Al-Shabab’s recruiting network, with some social media agitators for the Somali group now steering Western recruits toward Syria. A recent University of Southern California study on radical recruitment in the Twin Cities cited one Cedar-Riverside resident who received a text from an Al-Shabab recruit saying “the new order is to go to Syria.”
Authorities have pointed to ties between Al-Shabab recruits and suspects in the current ISIL investigations. Minnesota Al-Shabab member Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan, known as “Miski,” is a confidante of Abdi Nur, a Minneapolis community college student who left the country last year to join ISIL. Another young man now facing terrorism-related charges, Guled Omar, has an older brother believed to have joined Al-Shabab in late 2007.
Some experts say Al-Shabab recruitment in Minnesota might have drawn the attention of ISIL recruiters to the state. In one recent ISIL video, the narrator exhorts, “Those that are living in the United States — especially Minnesota — Great Britain, Germany and many parts of the kuffar [non-Muslim] world, you have a decision to make today.”
“The history of Al-Shabab recruitment here probably put Somalis on the map for other recruiters, but also unfortunately for intense scrutiny and harassment,” said Cawo Abdi, a Somali-born sociology professor at the University of Minnesota. “There’s a vicious cycle that commenced with the Al-Shabab departures.”
Size might matter, too, says state demographer Susan Brower. With 14,000 and 11,400 members respectively, Washington state’s and Ohio’s Somali communities are a distant second and third to Minnesota’s more than 45,000 Somali-Americans, a number experts and community leaders agree is an underestimate.
“I wonder if Minnesota has reached a critical mass, making recruitment more efficient and productive,” Brower said.
By most measures, local Somalis are making rapid headway and faring better than Somalis elsewhere in the country. About 40 percent of Minnesota Somalis live in poverty, compared with 62 percent of Somalis elsewhere — a rate that’s dropping fast in Minnesota while on the upswing nationally, according to census data. Minnesota Somalis also lead their counterparts elsewhere in high school graduation and college attendance.
But Somalis here continue to face large gaps with other Minnesotans, in areas from household income to high school graduation.
The authors of the recent study out of the University of Southern California argue that poverty and limited opportunity are not the main factors in Twin Cities radical recruitment. Instead, they zero in on young people’s sense of cultural isolation and the sometimes weak relationships between refugee parents and their U.S.-raised children.
More than a third of Somali households in Minnesota are led by a single parent, a higher rate than in Somali communities elsewhere.
They are “caught between their parents who see them as American and the wider community that sees them as ‘The Other’ because they are black, Muslim and the children of refugees,” said Abdi, the University of Minnesota professor.
Mohamed Mohamud, executive director of the Somali American Parent Association, said young people searching for role models and a sense of belonging can fall for recruiters’ promises amid a sense of alienation from the larger community, and sometimes from their own.
“Somali professionals and imams need to take action,” he said. “If they leave the responsibility for these young men to single uneducated mothers with six children, they are crazy.”
Meanwhile, law enforcement officials have highlighted the key role of what they call “peer-to-peer recruitment.” They’ve pointed to friendships forged in school and on a Minneapolis college campus among the men they accuse of seeking to join ISIL.
Hoffman, of Georgetown University, says it’s not surprising ISIL propaganda plays up camaraderie and a sense of belonging. He points to a Saudi soccer team that joined Al-Qaida in Iraq en masse in the mid-2000s and to seven young friends of diverse backgrounds in a small Norwegian town who all left to fight with ISIL.
“Historically, recruitment has less to do with ideology and religion,” he said, “and more to do with excitement, adventure and what your friends are doing.”