As the head of the Minneapolis FBI office prepares to leave for a leadership role in the agency's counterterrorism division, he says there's no strong indication young Somali men still are traveling from Minnesota to support the terror group al-Shabab.
But Special Agent in Charge Ralph Boelter - who managed the federal investigation into the recruitment and travels of young men from Minnesota to Somalia - said he doesn't discount that it could happen again.
"We will not be complacent on this issue," Boelter said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Boelter, 52, will leave Minnesota likely next month to become the deputy assistant director of the FBI's counterterrorism division. In the newly created post, he'll oversee the FBI's strategic operations in fighting terrorism. His duties will include ensuring the agency is gathering effective intelligence to stop existing and emerging threats.
Boelter, a native of Wisconsin, is excited about the opportunity but says it's hard to leave Minnesota because it feels like home.
"I've met just a multitude of people here who have been terrific," he said. "So this is a tough one."
Boelter has been the public face of the FBI in Minneapolis since 2007, after his predecessor was recalled to Washington for undisclosed reasons. Law enforcement officials outside the FBI say Boelter steadied the Minneapolis office. Highlights during his tenure include the arrest of Minnesota businessman Tom Petters, who was convicted of operating a $3.7 billion Ponzi scheme, and efforts to prevent violence during the 2008 Republican National Convention.
"At the end of the day, no Molotov cocktails were thrown during the RNC, and that's a major success for us," he said.
The case that grabbed the most headlines in recent years has been what Boelter calls the "traveler phenomenon" - in which roughly 20 young Somali men left Minnesota to support the terror group al-Shabab in Somalia. Years after it began, Minnesota remains the hub of that federal investigation.
The case is complex. In its early phases, Boelter and his team met every morning to try to figure out exactly what they were dealing with and what to do next.
"I'd convey to them: you know, no one is going to come and solve this case for us. There is no lifeline. We are going to do it, or it is not going to be done," Boelter said. "It was complicated, because these kids had all gone to the Horn of Africa. They didn't go to England - they went to a very difficult place."
Boelter said he is proud of the way his team worked on the case without damaging relationships in the Somali community, which was largely distrustful of law enforcement.
"Nothing came easy in this case," Boelter said. "The victories came only after a lot of hard work."
The case is ongoing, but is in a different phase. Several people have pleaded guilty. Boelter said he could not provide much new detail on the investigation, citing pending prosecutions.
A big piece of the team's work, he said, was understanding the dynamics of the Somali community and figuring out why the recruiting occurred. Boelter appeared on Somali television and radio shows and met with everyone from spiritual leaders to young people. Going forward, he said, that type of outreach should not be unique.
"If we have any hope of discerning threats, potential threats in the future or issues like this in the future, we're going to have to do that hand-in-hand with the community," he said. "We can never be fully transparent in the FBI, but if we are going to be successful in this new age of trying to defeat threats before they mature, we are going to have to be a little more transparent, and we are going to have to establish those public relationships."
Saeed Fahia, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, believes Boelter's work in the community helped. He said he thinks community members are more likely now to report troubles to law enforcement.
In one example of a breakthrough, Fahia said, Boelter and other agents went to a community center to talk with young people. Fahia recalls the kids stood at the door without entering - worried about getting arrested - until the FBI showed them that there would be a civil, open dialogue.
"In the sense that he wants to meet the community, and said, `I want to talk to them. I want to talk to the young, the old, everybody,' I would say he was courageous," said Fahia, who participated in the FBI Citizens' Academy, a program to show selected people in the community how the agency works. "He was culturally sensitive to people."
Boelter joined the FBI in 1991, investigating white collar and violent crime in Boston. From there, he oversaw violent crime and fugitive investigations at headquarters, and then went to Los Angeles, eventually becoming the assistant special agent in charge there. In 2005, he investigated the unauthorized disclosure of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson's undercover identity. He worked as an inspector at headquarters before coming to Minnesota.
His new focus will be solely on counterterrorism.
"This whole terrorism problem, it keeps evolving and changing. And it will continue to evolve as we go forward," Boelter said. "We've got to be thinking ahead, or we'll have no hope."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)