Minnesota's anti-terror efforts draw White House interest

Presenting at the White House
Abdi Phenomenal performed "More Than Heroes" during the Minneapolis-St. Paul presentation at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, Feb. 18, 2015.
Carolyn Kaster | AP

Minnesota's approach to keeping young people from joining terrorist groups got a high profile audience Wednesday in the nation's capital.

At a White House summit that began with an invocation from the Quran by St. Paul Imam Abdisalam Adam, officials and community leaders outlined a pilot program to address the causes of radicalization within the state's Somali-American community.

President Obama, who's asked Congress for $15 million to fund local anti-terror efforts, emphasized that national government alone can't do the job. Terrorists, he said, are "a threat first and foremost to the communities that they target, which means communities have to take the lead in protecting themselves."

The summit highlighted efforts to fight extremism in the Twin Cities, Boston and Los Angeles.

The FBI says a significant number of young people, often Somali-Americans from the Twin Cities, have either traveled or tried to travel to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS fighters.

Abdisalam Adam and Sheikh Sa'ad Musse Roble
Abdisalam Adam, a public school teacher and imam from St. Paul, left, and Imam Sheikh Sa'ad Musse Roble, of the World Peace Organization in Minneapolis, at the White House summit.
Carolyn Kaster | AP

Relatives and friends of those who have joined ISIS "have told us that they did not know where to turn when they saw a change in a young man or a woman and they were embarrassed sometimes to admit what was happening," Minnesota U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said.

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

Luger is spearheading the Minnesota effort and emphasized the role of establishing stronger ties between law enforcement and the Somali community. The police chiefs of Minneapolis and St. Paul spoke at length about the relationships their organizations have built with Somalis.

Some Muslims in Minneapolis said this week they fear Luger won't be able to blend the roles of prosecuting terrorism cases and building community outreach. They suggested law enforcement agencies should not be involved in social work.

But the Somalis who spoke at the summit emphasized even more dramatic interventions are necessary.

Hodan Hassan and Abdi Warsame
Hodan Hassan, from Save the Children US, left, and Minneapolis City Council Member Abdi Warsame, at the summit.
Carolyn Kaster | AP

"What my community, the Somali-American community, needs today is no less than a Marshall Plan tailor-made to the community's employment challenges," Minneapolis City Council Member Abdi Warsame said as he described the poverty and lack of upward mobility that help drive radicalization.

Psychotherapist Hodan Hassan said many young Somali-Americans struggle with a huge question — which society do they belong to, American or Somali? "This identity crisis is the root cause, one of the root causes, of radicalization in Minnesota," Hassan said.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., acknowledged that terrorism committed by Muslims was the driving force behind the conference. But he argued that other religions have also spawned violent extremist movements and that the United States risked making things worse by emphasizing the religion of the terrorists.

Ellison argued it's essential that law enforcement change its approach.

"We reinforce the false narrative that America is at war with Islam when we appear to violate our own requirements of the Constitution regarding surveillance, when we mix surveillance and outreach," he said, adding, "this is a very short-sighted thing to do."