Twin Cities chosen as pilot site for anti-terror program

Andy Luger
U.S. Attorney Andy Luger speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the U.S. Courthouse in Minneapolis, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014.
Jeff Baenen / AP

The U.S. Department of Justice has selected the Twin Cities as one of three locations that will test out a pilot program aimed to beat back violent extremism.

Minnesota's U.S. Attorney, Andy Luger, said federal officials have asked him to put together a wish list of federal resources that could help counter radical ideology.

Luger said through his discussions with Somali-American community leaders — such as regular dinners he has with Twin Cities imams — he has learned about the need for expanded programs for young people, "so that they see a brighter future, and one that doesn't involve either gang activity or the recruitment to go overseas."

Related coverage:
Family fears woman latest Minnesotan drawn to Syria
Jihad in Syria lures Somalis from Minnesota
FBI tries to stem flow of recruits to Syria

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He met today with Somali-American leaders who run youth programs to find out what they need to prevent gang or terror recruitment.

"I'm learning about what works, and I'm learning about what can take it to the next level," he said. "In communication with people in Washington, they're very receptive, very interested, in hearing about this so we can figure out where the funds are, which programs can be funded, and how quickly we can get that done."

Luger promised the new initiative would be different from previous law enforcement models, which focused solely on community outreach. The new effort will aim to help local organizations within the Somali-American community offer young people positive alternatives to extremism.

In developing the program, Luger said he will have access to senior officials in Washington as they discuss how best to combat violent extremism. When he presents his plan next month in Washington, he wants to be ready to discuss funding. The pilot program in Minnesota could be replicated across the country.

Ka Joog press conference on Kenya mall attack
Executive director Mohamed Farah of Ka Joog, a Minneapolis Somali-American nonprofit, in a 2013 file photo.
Amanda Snyder / MPR News 2013

Mohamed Farah, who runs the Minneapolis nonprofit Ka Joog, hopes the new initiative will allow his group's after-school and mentoring programs to expand their reach.

Over the past seven years, federal officials have stepped up their outreach with Somali-American leaders to combat the flow of young men who traveled to Somalia to fight with a terror group there.

Farah said the recent departures of Twin Cities residents who have joined radical groups in Syria suggest that federal officials need to rethink their strategy on fighting radical recruitment.

"It tells us we're not there yet. After so many years of trying hard to eliminate this issue, we're not even close," he said. "How do we move forward on this issue?"

Former Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, who trains groups on the risk of terror recruitment, it's time to implement programs that prevent youth from becoming radicalized in the first place.

"The real missing piece has been in helping kids succeed academically, socially, athletically, so they can achieve a portion of the American Dream," Fletcher said.

In years past, the bulk of federal money to help local communities fight extremist ideology has gone to bolster outreach initiatives within law enforcement, rather than to Somali-American organizations that are already working within the community, Fletcher said.

"In the past five years, we've done tons of outreach. Every Somali leader knows every government leader," Fletcher said. "Now we actually have to do the work on the ground where programs are built to help kids succeed."

Luger says the community discussions have also opened his eyes to the additional screening many Muslims face at the airport. He recently hosted a meeting with airport officials and Somali-American community members in hopes of finding a solution.

Luger declined to comment today on the federal investigation of young Minnesotans whose families fear have traveled to Syria to join the ranks of violent militant groups. But he recognized that the issue concerns many in the Somali-American community.

"How can we maintain the security at the airport we need while respecting people's rights and liberties to travel freely?" Luger said. "We have religious leaders and community leaders who are recognized for their great work on behalf of the community and behalf of law enforcement, some of whom are stopped and double-screened and triple-screened at the airport."