Twin Cities leaders take anti-extremism efforts to White House

Abdisalam Adam
Abdisalam Adam, a Minneapolis mosque leader, is one of eight Somali-American professionals to represent the Twin Cities at a White House summit.
Hart Van Denburg | MPR News

U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger and Twin Cities Somali-American community leaders head to the White House this week to seek millions of dollars for a strategy that they hope will help stem the flow of homegrown fighters for terror groups overseas.

Five months in the making, the "countering violent extremism" conference aims to seek new ideas to prevent Americans from enlisting with ISIS and other organizations. Minneapolis-St. Paul, Boston, and Los Angeles will share their approaches to fighting radicalization.

Minnesota's pilot program calls for an expansion of social services primarily aimed at Somali-American youth.

It also includes a focus on community-led interventions, in which families could enlist the help of mental health counselors, imams, and teachers if they suspect their children are being recruited by extremists, Luger told MPR News.

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The emphasis on early detection came from conversations Luger had with friends and relatives of young people who traveled to Syria to join ISIS, he said.

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 2014

"They saw this coming in the months before the person left, and they didn't necessarily know who to turn to," Luger said. "They were either in denial or embarrassed about what happened, and said it would be useful to have a community-led resource so that people knew who to go to in privacy and confidence."

The concept has echoes of a plan that a national Muslim advocacy group presented last year to Twin Cities imams, law enforcement officials and Somali-American community members. It resembles interventions that communities routinely stage for gang members or people struggling with substance abuse.

Luger said his hope is that these intervention teams would help divert the radicalized - "so that law enforcement never gets involved," he said.

But some Muslim leaders remain cautious, if not skeptical, of the program.

Abdisalam Adam, a Minneapolis mosque leader, is one of eight Somali-American professionals to represent the Twin Cities at the White House summit. "I don't trust completely," said Adam, also a teacher at St. Paul Public Schools.

But Adam said he believes more engagement between the Somali-American community and government is needed. And he said he can't fault Luger for pledging to bring resources to Somali-American social services that have struggled to receive funding over the years.

"If it works well and is done right, I think it will make a difference - maybe not stop recruitment directly, but build capacity and trust," Adam said. "Overall, there's a sense of caution, but we want to give it a chance."

His unease comes from past documents showing that community outreach programs created by the FBI and St. Paul police were designed, in part, to gather intelligence on the Somali-American community. But both agencies say they dropped those goals and never used outreach efforts to spy on local Muslims.

Luger has said repeatedly his program will not be used to assist criminal investigations.

But even though the effort may be well-intentioned, it's not Luger's place to expand social services, said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Many Somali-Americans remain concerned about law enforcement blurring the lines between community outreach and intelligence gathering, Hussein said.

"We believe the federal prosecutor should not be the one giving money to do afterschool programs," he said. "It should be coming from foundations and institutions."

Hussein also thinks the competition for limited dollars will create divisiveness in the community.

Many details of the program still need to be worked out, and Luger said he's continuing to gather community input.

He declined to say how much money he would request from a Department of Justice grant that helps build stronger communities, but put the figure in the millions.

In the past, state agencies have served as fiscal agents for the grant money, he said. He expects additional funding to come from foundations and corporations.

Last year, the head of the Minneapolis FBI division confirmed about 15 young people from the Twin Cities had traveled to Syria to join ISIS. It's unclear if that number has changed since then. At least four young people have been charged with offenses ranging from lying to the FBI to providing aid to a foreign terrorist organization.

Several years ago, nearly two dozen young men from Minnesota traveled to Somalia to fight for or support the terror group al-Shabab.

Luger's plan also calls for job fairs to increase the hiring of Somali-Americans in law enforcement. In addition, Luger said he's working with the Transportation Security Administration to resolve airport screening hassles faced by law-abiding Somali-American travelers.

The 15-member Twin Cities delegation also includes St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith, Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, FBI Special Agent in Charge Rick Thornton, Minneapolis City Council Member Abdi Warsame, and nonprofit Ka Joog leaders Mohamed Farah and Abdi Farah.

The group is planning to join Vice President Joe Biden, along with the Boston and Los Angeles delegations, on Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday, President Obama is expected to address more than 400 officials and experts working on counterterrorism, including international guests, said Ben Petok, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Minneapolis.