Terrorists talk nation-building, not death, to recruit Twin Cities youth

A little boy looks around
A little boy looks around during a Somali community meeting about stopping terror recruits on Sunday evening at the Brian Cole Center in Minneapolis.
Renee Jones Schneider / The Star Tribune via AP

Terrorist recruiters in Iraq and Syria are targeting young Muslim men and women in Minnesota. It's a situation that echoes earlier attempts to radicalize Minnesota youth, but the methods now are more sophisticated.

Eight years ago, the militant group al-Shabab lured some in the Twin Cities with talk of rebuilding Somalia. Its recruiting, planning, and funding was done largely in face-to-face meetings, federal court records show.

Today, local Muslim leaders and law enforcement worry about the terror group ISIS, with three confirmed cases of Minnesotans traveling to Syria and several more rumored.

ISIS recruiters use tactics similar to al-Shabab but they're encouraging youth to build an Islamic State, calling for doctors, engineers, and others who can help rebuild roads and buildings rather than calling for fighters.

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They're increasingly adept at using social media to deliver the message. Through its media center, ISIS has produced a glossy magazine, a 55-minute propaganda movie and slick videos, including one reposted by SITE Intelligence Group, a terrorist watchdog organization.


The man speaking in the video, identified as British ISIS fighter Abu Bara al Hindi, urges people to join the fight as a means to defeat depression and live with honor.

In one of the last tweets before his death, Douglas McCain, a Muslim convert who went to high school in Minnesota and was killed in Syria in August, wrote: "It takes a warrior to understand a warrior. Pray for ISIS."

ISIS sees Westerners as valuable in recruiting other Westerners and promoting terror, said Mubin Shaikh, a terrorism expert who helped infiltrate a home grown terrorist group for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

"Terrorism is theater more than anything else," he said. "It's propaganda of the deed, so to speak. Now you have Westerners who are putting out the media. They are the ones appearing the videos, threatening to behead Western citizens."

Recruiters are very good at tapping into the sense of displacement young people may feel. They offer a place to land, said Dr. Stevan Weine, a psychiatry professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who's studied the reasons why young people from Minnesota went to fight in Somalia.

"They say to them things like, 'What are you doing there? That's not your place. Your place is back home. You're always going to be a second class citizen in the United States. Come to Somalia or come to Syria and be a hero,'" Weine added.

ISIS fighters are consistently deploying their message on social media, and that message is not targeted to Somali-American youth in particular. Somali community leaders say they are fighting back against ISIS as they did al-Shabab. But they don't understand why anyone would join the Syria-Iraq group.

When al-Shabab began recruiting in Minnesota about eight years ago, it reached out with a patriotic appeal to Somali-Americans.

"At that time Ethiopian national forces occupied Somalia. A lot of people felt nationalistic, patriotism. So they want to protect Somalia," said Sadik Warfa, a community activist who works with Somali communities across the world.

U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger speaks during a Somali community meeting on stopping terror recruits on Sunday at the Brian Cole Center in Minneapolis.
Renee Jones Schneider / The Star Tribune via AP

"We're asking, 'What is the cause?' Because Iraq and Syria are far away from here. And this is something that our religious leaders, they made it clear from the get go," Warfa said. "This war in Iraq, especially ISIS in Syria, is totally wrong and unacceptable. Un-Islamic."

How ISIS and other groups are recruiting in Minnesota isn't clear, but FBI spokesman Kyle Loven says the online role has grown.

"We definitely understand that social media is playing a bigger role with respect to recruitment efforts," Loven said.

Extremist recruiters won't find a foothold among kids who are engaged, soccer coach Ahmed Ismail said on a recent afternoon as children and parents gathered at the soccer field outside the Brian Coyle Center, a major gathering place for the Somali community in Minneapolis.

"The problem is the kid who is standing outside. The kid who don't have nowhere to go. The kid who don't have a mentor. The kid who don't have nobody. The kids who are raised by single mothers," Ismail said. "That's the kids we need to focus on."

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the Twin Cities will be part of a pilot program aimed at countering extremism. Ismail hopes funds from the program will help to support community programs that engage children, like those at the Coyle Center.

On Sunday night, about 75 people filed into the Brian Coyle Center to hear Twin Cities Somali leaders condemn ISIS and its recruitment of young Somali men and women.

The leaders made a plea for more programs to help steer youth away from extremism. Some asked for more mentoring, more after school programs and the building of a Somali community center.

But Ilhan Omar, a board member of The Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, asked for community members to get involved personally.

"What can you do today. What is your responsibility in stopping recruitment?" Omar asked. "What kind of message are you going to carry to the person — the young person that you see, that is struggling with who they are?"