A recent threat by two men to burn down the house of a Somali woman if she and her family didn't leave Little Falls, Minn., is being investigated as a hate crime, authorities said this week.
Little Falls Police Chief Greg Schirmers said the Aug. 7 confrontation is the first hate crime that he knows of directed at a local Muslim resident.
The threat has since been condemned by the mayor and others in Little Falls, a predominantly white city of 8,200 people about 100 miles north of the Twin Cities.
"This community absolutely doesn't condone threats of violence against anybody," Mayor Greg Zylka said. "Hopefully we can solve this and prosecute to the fullest extent of the law."
The threat is the latest in a string of anti-Muslim incidents in central Minnesota in the past year, particularly around St. Cloud, where long-established communities of mostly German Catholic residents have been joined in recent years by Muslim newcomers.
In February, a billboard a few miles west of St. Cloud that questioned the wisdom of supporting immigration was taken down after complaints. Not long after, a license plate that directed a profanity at Muslims was revoked by state authorities who said it never should have been issued. In the months since, a series of public speakers — some local — have drawn audiences to talks that decry immigration and the Muslim faith.
In the Little Falls case, Anab Ali, who moved to town earlier this year with her children and is one of its few Somali residents, was confronted by two men at her home after she heard a knock on her door, according to police. After she stepped outside, the older of the two men called her a terrorist and said Muslims aren't allowed to live in Little Falls.
When Ali replied that she wasn't moving, the man said he would set fire to the house she rents, the report said. The other man then told her to leave the city, she told police.
Both men were white, according to police. One was of medium build, about 30 years old with shoulder length blond hair and a goatee. The other was about 65 with white hair, a tattoo on the right side of his neck and tattoos on both arms. He was shorter — about 5 feet, 7 inches — with a stronger build.
Authorities have yet to identify the men, Schirmers said, adding that the case remains under investigation. The department reported the confrontation to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension this week as a hate crime after a reporter called to ask about it.
Ali, meanwhile, declined to be interviewed about what happened.
Haji Yussuf, community director for UniteCloud, a St. Cloud-area group that works to foster good relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, said Ali told him she did not want to talk because she didn't want to portray Little Falls as a bad place.
"She's scared, but she's also saying a lot more people came to her and showed a lot of support, and she doesn't want to mess that goodwill up," he said.
UniteCloud was formed in St. Cloud as tensions surfaced over the arrival of Somali Muslims looking for work and affordable housing. The group's mission has grown to include hosting events that bring Christians and Muslims together over a common purpose, such as packaging food for the local food shelf.
Speaking to the threat against Ali, Yussuf said he hasn't seen similar threats made against Somali Muslims in the St. Cloud area recently.
"Things are getting better. Of course they always have one or two or three guys who want to think otherwise or do things otherwise because of the political election that is going on right now," he said, referring to the presidential campaign.
Ali's family has been in the spotlight almost since moving to Little Falls last spring.
After Ali enrolled some of her children in the local schools, rumors began circulating that the school district would make sweeping changes to accommodate Muslim students.
Sensing tension, Morrison County Record editor Tom West wrote a column urging residents to give the family a chance to make a better life for themselves.
At the same time, Little Falls Schools Superintendent Steve Jones, addressed the issue on a local radio program, which invited listeners to call with questions. Jones said this week that the questions were mostly about accommodations that might be made for the Somali students, and some of them were based on information that was "not truthful at all." He stressed that the school district and the students have welcomed the newcomers.
"Our kids are fantastic," he said. "We've had nothing but success with our students."
Zylka said some of the local anxiety is driven by the national conversation surrounding immigration and projections that show large numbers of immigrants moving into rural Minnesota communities such as Little Falls. He also pointed to the public speakers who have appeared across the state in recent months and touched on broad anti-Muslim themes.
In May, the Central Minnesota Tea Party Patriots invited Usama Dakdok to Little Falls to speak. Dakdok, who claims to have translated a copy of the Qur'an and who travels the country denouncing Islam as a violent cult, gave a speech titled "Revealing the Truth about ISIS." His speeches elsewhere in Minnesota have been met by protest, and a speech he gave in Grand Forks last fall was followed weeks later by the firebombing of a Somali restaurant in the same city.
Still, what happened to Ali has even surprised some who have warned of unchecked immigration.
Ron Branstner, a St. Cloud man who has given talks warning of the rise of sharia law, said after learning of the threat against Ali that people have the right to live and work wherever they choose.
"It's more than unacceptable," he said of the threat. "It's distasteful in every aspect that I can think of. You just don't do that."