Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Anders Folk and St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith will testify before the Homeland Security Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday, as it investigates how some American Muslims have allegedly received training and indoctrination by radical groups, including al-Shabab.
Folk, a lead prosecutor on the case of Twin Cities Somali links to al-Shabab before he left the Minnesota U.S. Attorney's office last year to join the Minneapolis-based law firm Leonard, Street and Deinard, spoke with MPR's Morning Edition.
The hearings have focused special attention on Minnesota's Somali population. Roughly two dozen young men from the Twin Cities have traveled to Somalia to join al-Shabab, a militant group with ties to al-Qaida.
Cathy Wurzer: What do you plan to tell the committee today?
Anders Folk: I think it's important for the committee members to understand that the threat posed by al-Shabab is a real threat, that it is one that has unfortunately focused on a large number of U.S. young men, and that it's a threat that requires ongoing attention by U.S. law enforcement agencies.
Wurzer: So far 18 people have been charged and six have pleaded guilty in connection to this case. Is there any evidence the people involved in this case were plotting attacks back here in the U.S.?
Folk: I think the thing to focus on with regard to what al-Shabab has done in terms of how they've recruited men from the United States and specifically from Minnesota is that the ideology and indoctrination that they really take a great deal of time and effort to instill in these men is one that really does provide an anti-Western message and an anti-U.S. message and one that promotes violence against innocent people and really treats that violence as part and parcel to how they do business as a terrorist organization. I think the real focus of our concern shouldn't necessarily be whether any of the individuals who have left Minnesota to date have specifically targeted the United States but the fact that the message that each of these men have been given is that hurting or killing innocent civilians is an OK way to do business if those people don't believe the same thing you do.
Wurzer: So no evidence to date at this point?
Folk: As it relates to the individuals that we've investigated and that have been charged in the United States, the message has been clear that they've been provided by al-Shabab, but I don't think I could specifically tell you that they have been targeted against the United States.
Wurzer: Has the government successfully disrupted the recruitment of young Somali-Americans into al-Shabab?
Folk: I'd like to think that we have. I think that the reality is it's very difficult to say. One reason is when we look at the fact that al-Shabab was designated a foreign terrorist organization in February 2008. That really sends a pretty clear message that what they're doing is not only illegal but also dangerous and something that can hurt others. Following that designation, Minnesota continued to see individuals leaving the United States and so it's difficult to predict with any kind of certainty whether the efforts have been fully disrupted or not.
Wurzer: I'm thinking maybe officials thought that once prosecution started that recruitment would stop.
Folk: I think there's always a hope that by prosecuting people that there will be some kind of message sent that this kind of activity is illegal, this activity is dangerous and it should stop people from doing it. But the reality is that even as people were being charged with very serious offenses in 2009 and pleading guilty to those offenses, we had individuals continuing to leave Minnesota for Somalia and for al-Shabab.
Wurzer: Minnesota Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison — himself a Muslim — says these hearings unfairly cast all Muslims in a negative light. Is that a legitimate concern?
Folk: I think it's important that we always focus our attention not only on the threat, which is real and which will be an ongoing threat into the future, but also the fact that we can never lump people into one group or say that just because of the god you worship or the country you call home or the language you speak that you're a terrorist or in some way deserving of the reputation of the terrorist. We have to be absolutely focused like a laser on the fact that it's your actions that you take and not the beliefs that you hold that will bring you into the orbit of law enforcement.
Wurzer: Early on in these hearings, there was a Somali American from Minnesota who testified and he said that there's silencing and intimidation faced by leaders and activists who are speaking out on some of these real challenges, keeping Somali youth in the community vulnerable to radicalization. Have you sensed that in your investigation?
Folk: I can't speak to his comments, but I think within the community there are people who are very supportive of law enforcement efforts and FBI efforts and who have attempted to do everything in their power to really try to help stop the flow of recruits to al-Shabab and taking a stand against the message. I think there's other members of the community that have been less vocal in speaking out against al-Shabab, and just by looking at the numbers of prosecutions, there are individuals who actually have supported al-Shabab. So I think it's really on a case by case basis that you have to look at different people's actions.
Wurzer: How has your understanding of this case evolve over time?
Folk: A couple different ways. One is as the case has gone on and as the number of Minnesotans leaving for Somalia to join al-Shabab has continued to increase, it has become more and more apparent to me that al-Shabab is not a flash in the pan, this is not a one-off. This is an organization that has the ability and the know-how to reach out and replenish their numbers through sophisticated and targeted recruitment efforts. Additionally, it has convinced me that al-Shabab's efforts are hurting the very people they profess to be representing. We can look no further than the famine in Somalia right now and the fact that aid convoys can't make it into Somalia because of the efforts of al-Shabab. As time goes on, I think we'll continue to see that kind of effect.
Wurzer: These hearings are focusing on American Muslims, but given the massacre in Norway, is the U.S. Attorney's Office paying attention to right-wing, homegrown extremists in this country? Should they be?
Folk: They absolutely should be, and I think they are. The FBI has a very clear mandate to investigate and prosecute along with the U.S. Attorney's Office any incidents of domestic terrorism. As a former federal prosecutor I've prosecuted numerous cases of what we call domestic terrorists which can include anybody from an anarchist to any kind of anti-government group that was espousing violence against either U.S. citizens or employees of the U.S. government such as judges. Absolutely there should be a focus there and I think there is, and I would imagine going forward there will continue to be.
(Interview transcribed by MPR reporter Elizabeth Dunbar.)