Local and national law enforcement officials met in Minneapolis on Friday to discuss ways to counter the sophisticated recruiting efforts of Muslim extremists, amid an atmosphere of suspicion within the local Somali community of government surveillance.
The meeting came as the case of seven young Somali-American men accused of plotting to abandon their homes and join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, wends its way through federal court.
Three of the men have so far pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization; several of remaining defandants have argued they were entrapped by a government-paid informant. A trial date has been set for February 2016.
Last year, U.S. officials trying to staunch the flow of recruits travelling to Syria announced the launch of a pilot program in three U.S. cities, including Minneapolis, that would place Somali youth into mentoring and job training programs. Details of the program, formerly known as Countering Violent Extremism, were unveiled earlier this month, drawing criticism from some community leaders who claimed it would lead to heightened surveillance of Muslims.
On Friday, officials from about 30 law enforcement agencies from Maryland to California converged on the downtown Minneapolis Marriott to share best practices for strengthening ties between police and immigrant communities, and discuss methods of countering radicalization.
A news release released Friday morning by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) read:
"The purpose of the meeting, being held in Minneapolis, Minn., is to provide a forum for state and local law enforcement executives and community members to exchange ideas and share lessons learned on how to develop partnerships to build resilient communities. Participants will hear directly from law enforcement executives and community partners that have developed and implemented community engagement, prevention and intervention initiatives. In addition to looking at promising and effective approaches, participants will also examine the importance of diverse communities, the role of faith partners and other critical issues."
The daylong meeting was closed to the press and officials declined to discuss the specifics of what was talked about.
"It's just another step forward in building strong communities of trust between law enforcement and the Diaspora," said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said by phone.
Also on hand were Somali community leaders and imams, the police chiefs of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and U.S. Attorney Andy Luger, who gave a brief talk Friday morning.
Stanek said that efforts by certain law enforcement agencies to recruit Somali youths as informants could backfire, warning that authorities would lose the trust of a community that was already skeptical of the government.
"In fact, what's noticably missing from this summit... is our federal law enforcement partners," Stanek said. "Not because we don't like them, but this is about local law enforcement building ties with the Diaspora community."
The government's case against the local men largely rests on the cooperation of a former member of the conspiracy who agreed to wear a wire and betray his friends.
Minneapolis police Chief Janeé Harteau, who also spoke at the meeting, pointed to the success of the department's seven-member Community Engagement Team, whose job extends beyond responding to "911 calls; their job is to connect with the community."
The MPD's outreach efforts in the Somali community have been held up as a model for improving how police interact with immigrant populations.
Harteau, who said she hadn't been briefed on the FBI's 10-month investigation of the suspected jihadists, said that some community leaders' mistrust of the government program was "very understandable," given the social climate.
"They've had experiences where they believe it to be true," Harteau said in an interview. "And it's hard for us to combat that."
Below is the report from last year's COPS summit in Georgia: