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Mpls FBI head ramps up outreach to Somalis

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Ralph Boelter
Ralph Boelter is the special agent in charge of the FBI's Minneapolis field office. For the past year, the FBI has been investigating the departures of about 20 young Twin Cities men who traveled to their native Somalia, allegedly to fight with the extremist group al-Shabaab.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

The head of the Minneapolis FBI division says the U.S. is seeing "a new era" of homegrown extremism, and it requires a different kind of response.

The work, Ralph Boelter says, is never easy.

For the past year, the agents he directs have investigated whether about 20 Somali-American men from Minnesotan went to Somalia to fight alongside a terrorist group. While chasing leads, they've tried to be methodical and sensitive about their every move, knowing that it's essential that the FBI doesn't end up alienating Somali-Americans, Boelter said.

"You can potentially do more damage than good if you don't calculate your investigation, or calculate your steps carefully," said Boelter, the special agent in charge in Minneapolis. "Just like a surgeon who can do more damage during a surgery than good, we can also do that." 

In his first in-depth interview since authorities announced eight new indictments in the case last month, Boelter told MPR News that Somali-American community leaders need to more clearly denounce extremist ideology and offer what he calls a "counter perspective."

Boelter recently met with several dozen young Somali-Americans to tell them their best chances of effecting change in war-torn Somalia is right here in the United States.

Al-Shabab
Armed fighters from the Al-Shabab group travel on the back of pickup trucks outside Mogadishu in Somalia on Monday Dec. 8, 2008. As many as 20 young Somali men from Minnesota have returned to the East African country to fight in its civil war.
AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh

So far, Boelter says he's proud of how the FBI has conducted its investigation. At 51, he's tall and lean with a touch of gray at his temples. 

Before coming to Minnesota, Boelter tackled violent crime and criminal enterprise in Los Angeles and Boston. Now he's at center of a case with national security implications.

And he's the public face for an agency deeply mistrusted by many of Minnesota's Somali-Americans who feel under siege. He recognizes that some in the community might be skittish when approached by the FBI, but hopes they'll get past that.

"They need to get over it," said Boelter. "We need to work on these problems readily, quickly, and move on. We will get the job done, whether we have cooperation or not. But it will take a lot longer if we do not have cooperation."

When the FBI began its investigation about a year ago, agents approached young Somali-Americans at malls or at college campuses -- a tactic some community members didn't agree with. Over the summer, the FBI searched the homes of at least two women in support of the investigation; those women told MPR News they had done nothing wrong and were sending donations to displaced refugees fleeing the violence of Mogadishu.

And religious leaders and volunteers at a Minneapolis mosque where most of the men worshiped say FBI agents have shown their pictures while conducting interviews.

"[Somali] young people need to hear that ... you are in a country where you can make change."

In addition, many Somali-American travelers have faced extra screening at the airports. Boelter said he's personally conveyed concerns about to the Transportation Security Administration.

Boelter said the FBI does not practice racial profiling, which he described as "illegal, discriminatory -- and if if that weren't enough -- it would be too arbitrary of an approach to be effective." But he said he is sensitive to the perceptions that the FBI has overreached.

The investigation into the missing Minnesotan fighters has been called the largest domestic terrorism case since Sept. 11. While Boelter wouldn't go that far, he does consider it significant. 

There's no evidence suggesting the missing men were planning any attacks on the U.S., but authorities can't ignore the potential, Boelter said. 

According to court documents, some of the young men were motivated by Ethiopia's U.S.-backed invasion of Somalia, and wanted to defend their homeland.

Boelter says he'd like to hear more Somali-American community members tell the younger generation that there's a better course for them.

"Within the community, there should be a counter perspective, that this is not a good thing to do," said Boelter. "Apart from it being against the law, it's not a smart thing to do. I think it's appropriate for me to weigh in that as well."

For Boelter, such voices aren't heard loud enough.

"I wish it were louder. I think it can be stronger in the community. The young people need to hear that counter-perspective -- that you are in a country where you can make change," said Boelter. "You have economic opportunity. You have political opportunities. And you can make change right here in America."

That's the same message Boelter told about 60 young Somali-Americans who gathered at the Brian Coyle Community Center last weekend as part of the FBI's outreach efforts. 

The FBI Minneapolis division has met with community members for years, but the ongoing investigation has spurred even more interaction. Earlier this year, Boelter appeared on Somali TV and radio.

Boelter acknowledges that the FBI could have built these inroads before the investigation began more than a year ago. He said the talks have opened his eyes to the larger problems facing some Somali-American youth. They told him they felt discriminated against, had been harassed by police, and spoke of what it's like to live in poverty.

"These are factors that create fertile ground for dissatisfaction, frustration," he said. "And I think those emotions feed the vulnerability of being influenced to do something that you or I would not do."

The people in Saturday's audience likely were not those most at risk for radical recruitment, but Boelter hopes they can spread the word that the FBI can be trusted.

After actively recruiting Somali-American translators and agents, the FBI's Minneapolis office recently hired its first Somali staffer. Boelter said he hopes many more will follow.