We were told things would be different with a community organizer in the White House. No one, however, predicted how important community outreach would become in law enforcement efforts to combat terrorism.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Minnesota continues to investigate -- and prosecute -- terror-related crimes, including the so-called "traveler" cases involving as many as 21 local men who authorities believe were recruited from Minnesota to Somalia to fight for the terrorist group Al-Shabab.

But almost a decade after 9/11, and four years after the "Operation Rhino" Minnesota-to-Somalia investigation began, authorities have come to an important realization, U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones told Star Tribune editorial writers last week.

"The lessons learned from the traveler cases is we're not going to prosecute our way out of it, and just a hard law investigation kind of approach isn't going to be the ultimate fix to countering violent extremism.''

That's why community outreach is so valuable. Shortly after Jones returned to the U.S. Attorney's Office for a second stint in the top job in 2009, he launched a major push in the local Somali community.

The initial focus was to engage elders and community leaders, but Jones and his staff soon realized they could have more impact with younger people, many of whom were born here and have little or no interest in returning to Somalia.

They want to live fully as Somali-Americans -- and Minnesotans -- and they're hungry to learn more about the United States and about community organizing and leadership.

At least once a month on a Saturday, members of the U.S. Attorney's Office staff, often including Jones, meet with small groups at Augsburg College in St. Paul for a sort of unofficial Civics 101.

The sessions are a key part of the office's laudable efforts to educate and engage an immigrant population that depends on trust and word of mouth.

"Our goal is to get them engaged and to buy in to this idea of America and not be isolated because they're Muslim," Jones said.

The office is also working to create more awareness among Somali parents that the Internet, especially through social media, is being used to find and recruit young people into terror networks.

Islamophobia in the broader community also calls for education. The more isolated or targeted Somali-Muslims feel, the more vulnerable they can become to radicalization.

Countering anti-Muslim sentiment is no easy challenge, especially when members of Congress are leading the charge.

It's well-documented that Rep. Peter King, R-New York, has used his chairmanship of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security to make unsubstantiated and irresponsible claims about U.S. mosques and Muslim-Americans.

But in a wonderful twist, two Minnesotans who testified at King's most recent hearings on terrorism echoed the same thoughtful approach to community relations that Jones is taking.

Anders Folk, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Minneapolis, and St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith both told the committee that outreach is critical in building trust and cooperation

Neither Jones, Folk nor Smith sugarcoated the threat posed by radical extremists or Al-Shabab.

And all three probably would acknowledge that even the most effective outreach -- combined with expert investigative work -- can't completely prevent terrorism, although Jones said traveler-type cases are less likely in Minnesota today than they were two years ago.

There are no guarantees. Still, Minnesotans are fortunate that prominent local law enforcement officials are approaching a complex problem with nuanced and comprehensive strategies.

Their tireless outreach work is the best kind of civics lesson they can offer in post-9/11 America.

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