The FBI directed its agents in Minneapolis and five other U.S. cities in 2009 to use community outreach with Somali groups as cover to gather intelligence on terrorist recruiting efforts and on individuals who would likely be vulnerable to being radicalized, according to a newly released memo that outlines the secretive operation.
But the Minneapolis field office refused from the start to follow the spying directive, approved by then-FBI Director Robert Mueller in the waning months of the Bush administration, saying its efforts to build strong relations with Somalis would be destroyed under such a plan, an FBI spokesman in Minneapolis said Wednesday.
“We never followed it because at the time we believed our brand of community outreach would engender the trust we’d built up here,” said Kyle Loven, the FBI’s spokesman in Minneapolis. “We took great care to make sure our outreach specialists were not involved in any investigations.”
In December 2010, the Obama administration ordered that the spy operation against Somalis be stopped immediately, saying that the bureau’s community outreach programs “must not report to the Field Intelligence Group or to an operational squad or task force,” according to an FBI directive obtained by the Star Tribune.
“It is important to maintain an appropriate separation between outreach activities conducted to build trust and confidence, and those conducted with specific operational or intelligence purposes, i.e., human source development or setting tripwires as authorized” the overriding directive stated. “A Special Agent or Intelligence Analyst attached to an operational squad should not engage in community outreach. Under no circumstances may an FBI employee engage in any effort to dissuade individuals from adopting, practicing or espousing a particular religious belief.”
In 2007, FBI agents in Minneapolis began investigating terrorist recruiting efforts in the Twin Cities that resulted in the first wave of young Somali men departing to fight with Al-Shabab, the Somalia-based group aligned with Al-Qaida. Known as the “Travelers” case, the FBI sought to understand why at least 22 Somalis in the Twin Cities left between 2007 and 2009 to join up with terrorists in their homeland.
“We’d been two years into bridge-building and we wanted to stay on the right track — our intentions were good and honorable,” Loven said. He said he could not speak to whether field offices in other cities followed the directive out of Washington.
Minneapolis top priority
The 2009 memo, recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and released Wednesday, shows that the spy effort targeted the Minneapolis Somali community as its highest priority.
The other cities targeted for spying on Somalis were Cincinnati; Seattle; San Diego; Washington, D.C., and Denver. The memo outlines how agents across the country were instructed by then-Deputy Director John Pistole to work in concert with FBI community outreach programs and the bureau’s Behavioral Analysis Unit “to develop a baseline profile of Somali individuals who are vulnerable to being radicalized or participating in extremist activities.”
Mohamed Jama, general director of the Cedar-Riverside Youth Council, said he’s “very, very upset” to learn about the spy directive, which would have destroyed his community’s trust of law enforcement. “In our culture, when there’s mistrust between individuals, it will always be there,” he said. “If the Minneapolis FBI would have gone in that direction, it would have led to a dead end, because the people in the community would then not want to cooperate.”
He applauded the Minneapolis field office for not following the directive. “Law enforcement agencies have reached out,” he said. “It feels like we have a good relationship.”
Andy Luger, the U.S. attorney in Minnesota, stressed Wednesday that recent community outreach initiatives in his office continue to have the full support of local Somali leaders. Those efforts include settling a federal lawsuit that allows a mosque to operate in the city of St. Anthony and putting an end to the discriminatory profiling and screening of Somalis who are flying out of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
“Not once have I given thought to using our community engagement for intelligence gathering,” Luger said. “It has no place in the work I’ve been doing. I care deeply about the civil liberties of all communities. Since I’ve been sworn in, I have worked with hundreds of Somalis to address the root causes of radicalization.”
Richard Thornton, the FBI’s special agent in charge of the Minneapolis office said, “We are committed to both our constitutional responsibilities, as well as our long-standing partnership with this community. We stand with the Somali community in the face of radicalization efforts directed against its youth.”