Between 2007 and 2009, at least 22 young Somali-Americans left the Twin Cities after being recruited to join the Al-Shabab terror group in their homeland.
More recently, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) launched another recruiting effort in Minnesota. The brutal terrorists specifically target Somali-American young people — often online through YouTube and other social media. Officials say that as many as 15 Somali-American men and women have left Minnesota in recent months to join ISIL.
In response, a coalition of local imams, elders, parents and youth groups from the Somali community are wisely teaming up with law enforcement, business leaders and schools on an action plan. Called "Building Community Resilience," the plan builds on the lessons of the Al-Shabab recruiting in an effort to address the root causes of youth radicalization.
Andy Luger, the U.S. attorney in Minnesota, is coordinating this critical effort. In a meeting with the Star Tribune Editorial Board last week, Luger emphasized that the majority of the estimated 75,000 to 100,000 Somali-Americans in Minnesotans want to live peaceful, productive lives — and they want and need help keeping their young people out of the clutches organizations like ISIL.
Minnesota has been targeted, in part, because the state has the largest Somali-American population in the United States, with about half living in the Twin Cities area. Luger said ISIL targets vulnerable Somali-Americans, often those who are struggling to forge an identity in a new country and may be asking, "'Where do I fit in? Am I Somali? An American?'… And ISIL will play on that and draw them into a new world that they promise will be better but, in fact, is not."
Some Somali-Americans between ages 18 and 24 may be especially receptive to that message because of school troubles, generational divides within their families, lack of connection to religious leaders and to mainstream Minnesota, and high unemployment, Luger said. That's why the action plan smartly includes more youth programming, mentoring, higher-ed scholarships, job fairs, intervention teams and social media campaigns.
The Somali community is by no means alone in struggling with disaffected youths. Regardless of background, young people who feel disconnected from family or society can become bullies or victims of bullying. They are the kids who, in the most extreme cases, join gangs, become school shooters or consider suicide. And American history is full of stories about the difficulties young immigrants have had assimilating in this country.
Officials in cities around the world are having similar problems with ISIL and are turning to Minnesota for help. Teams from other American and European cities have interviewed local officials for information about setting up their own outreach programs.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, a Minnesota delegation of law enforcement and Somali community leaders will be in Washington for a White House summit on combating terror recruiting in the United States. The Department of Justice recently announced that the Twin Cities is one of three communities participating in a yearlong pilot program aimed at engaging at-risk Muslim youth. Along with Minneapolis and St. Paul, Los Angeles and Boston will also receive federal resources to create opportunities for youth and better integrate them into American society.
The pilot program in Minnesota has been well-received by some local businesses and nonprofits — including the Carlson Family Foundation, Cargill and the Minneapolis Foundation — but it needs even more community support.
As part of the "Resilience'' effort, the broader Twin Cities community can also help by reaching out to young Somali-Americans. Sign up as a mentor. Include young East Africans in constructive youth activities. Help connect them with quality education, good social networks and other out-of-school activities that can help them build successful adult lives.
Ultimately, the best way to prevent Somali-American young people from falling prey to the recruiting tactics of terrorists is to help them feel welcome in a society that offers plenty of opportunities for a better life for those who work hard and obey the law.