A top official of the Obama administration promised Friday to address racial profiling encountered by Somalis who fly out of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, acknowledging the need to ensure that civil liberties are not eroded in the effort to investigate terrorism leads in the Twin Cities.
“There are people here who say they’d rather fly out of Chicago,” Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said after a roundtable discussion with irritated Somali leaders at the Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis.
Johnson made clear he was angry to learn that Somalis in the Twin Cities will drive more than 400 miles to bypass what they say are discriminatory and demeaning screenings by security agents at the Twin Cities airport.
“I think I understand what it’s like to be the object of stereotyping, of profiling,” said Johnson, who is black.
Johnson, who took the helm of the sprawling department last December, was general counsel at the Department of Defense before being tapped by President Obama. His department includes the Transportation Safety Administration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the Secret Service.
When pressed, Johnson declined to cite specific steps he will order to change airport screening by TSA and Customs agents. “I’m in a learning mode right now,” he said.
Johnson’s stop in Minneapolis was part of a cross-country listening tour that includes diverse communities that have complained the government is trampling the civil liberties of ethnic and racial minorities in the effort to investigate terrorist groups.
Friday’s meeting in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, which has a large Somali population, was closed to the press, but those in attendance said Johnson heard a number of stories about young men being targeted and harassed at the airport. The meeting was attended by top law enforcement leaders from the metro area — many of whom are also involved in the effort to stop local recruitment by international terrorist groups.
Since last summer, about a dozen Somalis from the Twin Cities have managed to board local flights to Europe and then on to the Middle East, eventually smuggling themselves into Syria to fight under the black flag of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In one case, FBI agents stopped a young Somali teen who was about to board a flight just hours after his unwitting father had dropped him off at a local high school for class.
The FBI has been investigating Somali recruiting networks in the Twin Cities, and a federal grand jury has been hearing testimony for more than six months.
Johnson said that injecting more resources into youth and employment programs for Somalis is paramount to show disenchanted teens and young adults that they have better options than joining radical groups in the Middle East. Minneapolis, Boston and Los Angeles are pilot cities in a federal effort aimed at dissuading youths to flee the U.S. “We have to offer an alternative narrative for young people,” he said.
One barrier, Somali leaders say, is immense suspicion in their community that the FBI has been recruiting informants to provide intelligence about activities in local mosques.
“I would tell the mosques, ‘Help us to help you.’ I don’t consider that snitching,” Johnson said. “It’s a fair question. There is a fine line between suspicious behavior and simply doing things that are part of your heritage and your culture. We don’t want to stoke suspicion and fear.”