WASHINGTON – Andy Luger was on a listening tour in Minnesota’s Somali community last year, hearing a string of complaints that ranged from mistreatment at the airport to a Minneapolis suburb’s rejection of a proposed Islamic prayer center, when something clicked.
A young person stood up and told the state’s newest U.S. attorney that he was tired of telling government leaders about problems; he needed someone to actually solve them.
“That moment … it really crystallized for me,” said Luger, who was sworn into the job about a year ago. “We needed action.”
So Luger sued the north metro city of St. Anthony for denying the proposed Islamic prayer center. He settled the case and now the prayer center is being built. He also got U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials from Chicago to fly out to Minneapolis to hear directly from the Somali community about racial profiling at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, including from an imam who was double-screened every time he flew.
He encouraged the recruitment of youth workers in several Minneapolis Public Schools with large African populations and growing behavioral problems. Suspensions dropped by nearly half. To combat high unemployment in one Somali neighborhood, Luger lobbied the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs to hold a local job fair for their dozens of openings.
The White House is interested in these efforts. On Wednesday, Luger will present his work, along with community, religious and school leaders from Minnesota, at a Washington summit on countering violent extremism.
Call it a broken windows approach to fighting homegrown terrorism, that is dealing with smaller issues to ease the larger disconnect many Somalis say they feel when trying to blend into their new American communities. Luger hopes that by chipping away at stubborn problems in the Somali community, additional young people will be less enticed by jihadist recruiters to cross the ocean to fight with extremist groups.
Last year, the Justice Department called on Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Boston to develop local community engagement models and come back with concrete ideas they could broadcast internationally, where jihadist recruiters work social media networks to lure people from the United States and western Europe to the Middle East.
It’s been an intense year on that front in Minnesota.
In 2014 at least three Minnesotans were reported killed while fighting in Syria or Iraq for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The first American who died fighting for the jihadist group was from New Hope. At the same time, a federal grand jury in St. Paul is investigating who is behind efforts to convince an additional 20 to 30 people they should abandon Minnesota for the Middle East and join extremists.
The way forward
Much of Luger’s relationship-building occurs with imams and community leaders over dinner.
But Luger is mindful that he must walk a thin line between ingratiating himself with a historically distrustful community and hewing to his duties as a prosecutor. He also must overcome suspicion that his efforts to engage Somali leaders and youth will be seen as a backdoor effort to spy on the community.
To that end, Luger says Somali leaders have taken the lead on defining what they want from these outreach efforts. “Everyone agrees that this is the way to go forward,” he said. “There has to be a complete separation between law enforcement and what the community has asked us to do.”
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, who has different teams of people meeting with communities and those investigating crimes, agrees. He acknowledges that until recently, Minnesota law enforcement was doing a “lousy” job on all fronts.
“Local law enforcement didn’t know what was happening and then in 2008 or 2009, a guy showed up dead in a suicide bombing and shame on us, so we doubled down, we tripled down on our efforts,” Stanek said. “Do we have an intelligence unit? Absolutely, but there’s a delineation of duties. Each and every day, I work with my federal partners, but I don’t cross over the two.”
Local officials are proud that they stood up to a directive in 2009 from Washington to use community outreach as a guise to spy on local Somali communities to gather information. In 2010, the Obama administration halted the order. “I’ve been outspoken on my community’s behalf,” Stanek said. “They don’t always get a voice.”
Imam Abdisalam Adam, director of Minneapolis’ Dar Al-Hijrah mosque, appreciates being able to air concerns, but said there is not yet full trust.
“It’s cautious engagement,” Adam said. “Generally there’s a feeling that engagement is good. But there is also this fear that this engagement is being used for intelligence-gathering or investigations and that worries people. We don’t want it to come back to haunt us, that’s the feeling.”
The American Civil Liberties Union is watching all this, worriedly. Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s national security project, said the notion that the federal government is running “countering violent extremism” programs specifically within Islamic communities across the U.S. could run afoul of constitutional protections.
“Community outreach is a legitimate and important law enforcement function and around the country, there are many people trying to do the right thing,” she said. “But what is the line being drawn between outreach and overt or subtle pressure to provide intelligence or actually gathering intelligence?”
Courtney Kiernat has hired a dozen youths to work in the three Minneapolis schools with large African populations. She, along with Imam Adam, said young people are more likely to get into trouble when they feel disconnected and these workers help serve as mentors.
“These youth workers aren’t targeting kids specifically around terrorism,” said Kiernat, Minneapolis Public Schools’ executive director of external partnerships. “It’s more around the behavior … It’s really about having relationships.”