In Minnesota, Somalis don't want al-Shabab to define them

When a video purportedly by the Somali terror group al-Shabab encouraged extremists to conduct lone-wolf attacks on shopping centers, including the Mall of America, Somali-Americans in Minnesota wrestled with how best to respond.

After hours of meetings, Somali-American leaders condemned the video and made it clear that al-Shabab is losing its ability to sway minds in their community.

Shoppers headed in to the Mall of America Sunday.
Shoppers entered the Mall of America Sunday.
Jerry Holt | Star Tribune via AP

But some wondered what they could do as individuals.

Ali Bulhan, of Minneapolis, thought the best thing Somali-Americans like himself can do to protest the video is go to the Mall of America.

So that's what he did Sunday, with his two-year-old son in tow. Bulhan, a bank manager, said he wanted to show that it was safe to be there.

"I wanted to send a message to Muslims and Somali-Americans — we are not worried, we're not afraid, and we're not going to give into terrorist threats wherever they may be," he said.

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Despite the widespread media attention given to the video, Bulhan isn't convinced that anyone in Minnesota would be inspired by al-Shabab's call to violence.

Several Somali community leaders spoke out Monday on their universal contempt for the group. Last week, al-Shabab claimed responsibility for killing dozens in a hotel bombing in the Somali capital of Mogadishu.

Mohamud Noor
Mohamud Noor, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, held a news conference on Feb. 17 to call for the creation of a one-stop community center to combat social problems he says fuel sympathy for international extremism.
Sasha Aslanian | MPR News

Safety and security are top concerns for Somali-American community leaders in Minnesota, said Mohamud Noor, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota.

"We're part of society, and anything that's brought upon us, it's on all of us," Noor said.

But many Somali-Americans are not sure how to respond to the al-Shabab video.

Dozens of community leaders met Sunday to address the issue, asking themselves if they should hold a press conference to make clear they denounce violent ideology. Some wondered why they should have to state the obvious — and why the entire Somali-American community should be held accountable for the actions of al-Shabab. Wouldn't calling more attention to the issue, they asked, play into the hands of the terrorist group?

Abdi Warsame
Abdi Warsame
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Minneapolis City Council Member Abdi Warsame said he worries about a backlash from the broader community, a concern some Somalis expressed last week in Washington during a White House counter-terrorism summit aimed at stopping radicalization in the United States.

"A young lady at the conference said, 'I feel the larger community thinks I'm a threat. But I myself feel like I'm a target,'" Warsame said.

"This is the way some of our community members feel. They're hard working, they're patriotic. They love this country, they've contributed a great deal to this country, and a criminal group, such as al-Shabab, is trying to make them look bad."

Warsame said he hopes the rest of the nation begins to see his community as part of the solution.

Over the weekend, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson warned shoppers to be "particularly careful" at the Mall of America in light of the video. But the FBI and other law enforcement officials later clarified that authorities know of no specific, credible threat to the mall.

The government's recalibration of that message came too late, said Hassanen Mohamed, a Somali-American who sits on the Brooklyn Park Human Rights Commission.

"The damage was already done," Mohamed said. "In social media, you can see people posting threats about the Somali community, saying negative stuff."

Mohamed said the video was designed to instill fear in the public, and it succeeded on that count.

"We have to have an understanding of who the terrorists are and who the Somalis are," Mohamed said. "Being a Somali and being a terrorist is not synonymous."

MPR News reporter Mukhtar Ibrahim contributed to this report.