WASHINGTON – When Rep. Keith Ellison closes his eyes at night, he worries about the Somali-American kids at the “tipping point.”
They are the ones so disaffected with life in the U.S. that they find comfort in amateur, dark, online recruiting videos from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, referred to as ISIL or ISIS. The ones, Ellison says, who think they would have a better life and a better chance at influencing U.S. foreign policy by fighting there than voting here. Those, he said, who think ISIL leaders actually care about them.
“The people who get recruited are operating outside of the regular mosque structure, the regular community center structure,” said Ellison, a DFLer who was the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, in 2006, and who represents Minneapolis.
He spoke at length with the Star Tribune after authorities charged six Minnesotans with planning to leave the United States and fight alongside Islamic extremist groups.
“They’re sort of off in some dark corner, you know. … They’re not going to Mogadishu, they’re going to Syria or Iraq to go fight somebody they don’t know. For what? What’s the comfort they are looking for?” he said.
Ellison said such young people are worrisome because of all the efforts local law enforcement, the Obama administration, Minnesota imams and Ellison himself have made to let kids know there are other options when they feel disenchanted.
White House officials picked Minneapolis, along with Boston and Los Angeles, to participate in a “countering violent extremism” pilot project this year, which focused on building relationships between law enforcement and Muslim community leaders. In a presentation here in February, Minnesota’s U.S. Attorney Andy Luger touted the benefits of his relationships with local Muslim leaders, built largely over dinners together.
But Ellison said authorities will need to be even more resourceful and creative to get to the places outside normal social institutions, where the most disaffected, depressed youth are skulking — including online.
“I don’t know how we talk to them. I don’t know how we get through to them,” he said. “People like me need to be communicating a message that there is a good life to be lived. There is nothing about U.S. foreign policy that you don’t like that you could not more effectively change by active citizenship. Nobody is going to be complaining if you don’t like Guantanamo. I don’t like it either.”
A former criminal defense attorney, Ellison defended the informant who led law enforcement to the men who were indicted earlier this week. While some in the community have complained about the informant’s so-called betrayal of his fellow conspirators, Ellison said the man “saved their lives.” He was not a “snitch,” Ellison said. A snitch, he said, gives testimony against after a crime is committed in order to get a reduced sentence or other considerations from prosecutors.
“That’s a snitch,” Ellison said. “That’s not what this guy did. He gave information that he thought would probably save their lives. Being in jail is better than being dead in Syria. … Once they got over to Syria and found out that ISIS is nothing but a bunch of bloodthirsty murderers, they’re not fighting for Islam, they’re not standing up for the Muslim community, they’re just a bunch of murderers, then they might try to leave, but it may be too late. They kill people like that.”
DFL Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken have both sought additional federal resources for Minnesota to help counter extremist efforts. The president’s 2016 budget increases allocations to the state. And both senators confirmed that on Wednesday the Justice Department was making available an additional $100,000 immediately for such efforts in the Twin Cities.