Expel or engage? Mosques seek new ways to end terror recruiting

Skeikh Abdirahman Ahmad
Skeikh Abdirahman Ahmad, the imam at Abubakar As-Saddique mosque, during an interview Friday, Sept. 26 in Minneapolis.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Imam Abdirahman Ahmad recalls cutting loose worshippers and laying down new rules after it became clear the al-Shabab terror group was recruiting in his mosque.

"We clarified everything. We said, 'If you are radical, go somewhere else. Don't come to the masjid,'" Abdirahman said recalling the tension from a few years earlier. "If we see anybody who's infected, we immediately kick out from the masjid."

Expulsion remains the basic approach for mosques confronting sympathizers of al-Shabab, ISIS and other terror groups. Experts, though, increasingly worry it's the wrong move and may plant the seeds for even more radicalism.

Keeping those angry men within the mosque and reaching out with mental health counselors and other resources may be a better way to bring people back from the fringe, some Muslim leaders and counterterrorism analysts say.

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As Minnesota's U.S. Attorney Andy Luger prepares to launch a national pilot program to counter violent extremism in the Twin Cities, some observers say Minnesota would be fertile ground to try this newer approach. They also acknowledge it will take effort and money that's beyond the reach of most mosques.

U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger spoke during a Somali community meeting on stopping terror recruits on Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, at the Brian Cole Center in Minneapolis.
Renee Jones Schneider / The Star Tribune via AP

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Simply banning troublemakers from the mosque won't prevent the next terrorist attack, said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council.

Al-Marayati came to Minneapolis earlier this year to pitch his Safe Spaces initiative to imams, Somali-American advocates, and law enforcement officials.

The model is similar to community programs aimed at youth who have begun to dabble with gang activity. It also resembles interventions commonly used to treat people addicted to drugs or alcohol.

A key component is to supply the mosques with mental health professionals and social workers who can intervene in the lives of troubled people before they become violent.

The need to intervene became tragically clear after last year's Boston Marathon bombing, he said.

"In retrospect, we should have intervened, we should have helped, we should have tried to rehabilitate him," Al-Marayati said of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of two brothers suspected of waging the attack. Months before the bombing, Tsarnaev had two outbursts at a local mosque in response to sermons urging peace and co-existence.

"He stood up in the mosque and started shouting at the imam. And he was kicked out of that mosque," Al-Marayati said. "It's understandable that people like that are kicked out. But what happened was Tamerlan went somewhere else where he felt belonged, and he felt he did not belong in our community...[The attack] was a catastrophe to our country. It led to the killing of innocent people. And it led to the tarnishing of our religion."

The stakes are even higher now, Al-Marayati said. Terror groups including ISIS, also called the Islamic State, have recruited fighters to Syria from places like the Twin Cities. Two Minnesota men are believed to have died on the battlefield.

This summer, a Bloomington mosque, Al-Farooq Youth and Family Center, called police about a man the center suspected was trying to radicalize its youth. That mosque says at least two young people who worshipped there traveled to Syria in recent months.

Ahmad, imam at the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis, recalled a difficult period in 2011. A handful of young men had accused Ahmad and other leaders of being infidels and one man punched a mosque official in the face. The mosque responded by calling police, banning the men and adopting a zero-tolerance policy on violent extremism.

While Ahmad said he agrees with the idea of engaging, not exiling, people on the edge, his mosque doesn't have the mental-health staff or other resources to intervene on that level.

Nationally, law enforcement agencies are beginning to see the wisdom in community-led interventions with people who are flirting with extremist ideology, said William Braniff, executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.

"If you can actually change either the belief system or get someone to change those behaviors they engage with before they ever go down that road," he said, "you really may be saving yourself a lot of trouble and danger down the road."