WASHINGTON – Minnesota law enforcement, politicians and Muslim leaders gathered Wednesday at the White House to tout a nascent, community-backed program as a model for attempts to prevent youths from being swept away to fight with jihadist groups abroad.
Sharing a stage with authorities from Paris, Boston and Los Angeles at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, the Minnesota leaders stressed the early successes of the new pilot project.
Operating in public schools, the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and mosques, the project targets mostly disenchanted Somalis in hopes of immunizing them from the slick recruiting tactics employed by extremists abroad.
The summit is aimed at bringing national, international and local leaders together to develop community-based methods for thwarting terrorist recruitment.
Minnesota was the focus Wednesday because of its large Somali population, its innovative approach and the number of would-be terrorists recruited from the state.
FBI officials said more than 20 Minnesotans have been charged in connection with terrorism in the past several years. In 2014 alone, at least three Minnesotans were reported killed while fighting in Syria or Iraq for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL.)
One terrorist group crafted a recruitment video tailored specifically to Minneapolis youth, with a picture of an outbound plane ticket from its airport.
President Obama offered some gentle but frank criticism to the assembled leaders, who included imams from Minnesota.
“The older people here, as wise and respected as you may be, your stuff is often boring compared to what they [terrorist recruiters] are doing,” he said, eliciting applause and laughter. “You’re not connected. And as a consequence, you are not connecting.”
Imam Abdisalam Adam, director of Minneapolis’ Dar Al-Hijrah mosque, said that if authorities cooperate with local Somalis, the effort will work.
“Mosques serve as a beacon of hope,” he said. Adam has encouraged those who attend his mosque to trust police and get alienated young people re-engaged through after-school mentors and sports or through school counselors. Minneapolis Public Schools have recently brought on youth workers at a few schools considered to have the most at-risk students.
“Young people in one way or another get alienated, in one way or another they lose their way,” said Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., addressing the three-day international Countering Violent Extremism summit.
Minnesota’s efforts have brought division among Somalis. Some say the moves to forge partnerships with local police, school district officials and prosecutors serve largely as a platform for surveillance.
Earlier this week, those affiliated with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said they explicitly didn’t want mosques to become places of spying. Jaylani Hussein, director of the group, said much of what was happening in Minnesota “blurs the line between community outreach and intelligence gathering.”
Other civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have expressed a similar worry.
Minneapolis authorities have been working to develop relationships with members of the Somali community for a few years.
Minnesota’s U.S. Attorney Andy Luger was asked to participate officially in the federally backed project last year because the Twin Cities area had become a hotbed of extremist recruitment.
Luger said Wednesday the idea behind Minnesota’s program started with Somalis.
“In my meetings with hundreds of members of the community, what the people on our panel said is that this is what people were asking for,” Luger said. “Nothing that was said this morning was my idea or any government official’s idea. It all came from them.”
Rep. Keith Ellison, a Muslim and a DFLer representing Minneapolis, said terrorists succeed in recruitment only when this country’s opportunities aren’t “deep” enough for Muslim-Americans.
Ellison reminded the audience that terrorism is not just a “Muslim thing.”
“Muslims are victims of it,” he said. “It’s very critical to bear in mind that there is no religion that has a monopoly on violent extremism.”
The White House event highlighted the efforts of communities around the world battling this problem through a focus on youth.
Young people often are torn between the more secular American world and a religious Islamic one at home. They may have been born in the United States to immigrant parents, or brought here when they were young, and feel despondent and isolated, with a sense they don’t belong.
Hodan Hassan, a youth mentor living in the Twin Cities, said Somali adolescents have fewer job opportunities and wholesome activities, which makes them susceptible to aggressive recruiting.
“They struggle with not being American enough,” she said.
Obama, addressing the summit participants, warned leaders there will be a “military component” to the struggle because ISIL fighters in the Mideast are ravaging large areas.
“There are savage cruelties out there that have to be stopped,” he said.
Speaking specifically to the Muslim leaders in the room, Obama asked them to vouch for the community outreach programs so they become more widely respected. He noted that when someone starts getting radicalized, family and friends are usually the first to see the changes in personality.
“These terrorists are a threat, first and foremost, to the communities that they target, which means communities have to take the lead in protecting themselves,” he said. “And that is true here in America, as it’s true anywhere else.
Allison Sherry • 202.383.6120