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Somali-American task force seeks to build support for anti-terror program

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Hodan Hassan
Hodan Hassan is one of 15 members of a Somali-American task force implementing a pilot program that aims to prevent the recruitment of young Minnesotans by overseas terrorist groups. Hassan, a mental health practitioner, said her community needs the resources that the program would provide.
Laura Yuen | MPR News

Members of a Somali-American task force say they're confident they can win over skeptics as they roll out a new program aimed at preventing terror recruitment in Minnesota.

Many Somali Minnesotans remain mistrustful of the pilot program spearheaded by U.S. Attorney Andy Luger. But task force member Hodan Hassan says her community needs the resources it would provide.

"When you see that we're trying to find employment for youth, and we're trying to find ways to support building a new center for youth, people will see with their own eyes that there's nothing to be afraid of," she said. "This is a resource creation for the Somali community, and we're inviting all communities to be part of it."

Luger signed a memo saying he would not use the program to gather intelligence, which is a widespread concern among Twin Cities Muslims.

The program aims to hire an independent researcher to identify the root causes of radicalization, including identity issues, community isolation, lack of role models and unemployment. Inequality and low social mobility have impeded the community and have provided a window for overseas terrorist groups like al-Shabab and ISIS to take hold, task force members said.

"They provide money, they provide work, they provide women to marry — they provide a lot of things," said Mohamed Mohamud, executive director of the Somali American Parent Association, said of the extremist groups. "So we're trying to overcome that."

But critics don't believe jobs or scholarships will do much to prevent someone from turning to violent ideology. Several young men arrested recently in the Twin Cities on charges of trying to join ISIS were working and attending community college. And experts say there isn't a single profile of who might be endangered of becoming radicalized.

The task force also seeks to provide community "support teams" — including imams, parents, teachers, coaches, and mental health professionals — that could intervene in the lives of young people who have been disconnected from their families. A final component of the program calls for community events aimed at fostering positive relations between the Somali community and law enforcement.  

Task force members say the program has $200,000 in seed money, seeks to secure additional federal grants, and has secured financial commitments from foundations. A third-party nonprofit would likely serve as the project's fiscal agent and distribute the funds to avoid the perception that the money is coming from law enforcement.

"This committee is working with law enforcement, but we're not working for law enforcement," said Abdi Salah, an aide to Minneapolis City Council Member Abdi Warsame. "We're happy to have the U.S. Attorney's office as a partner, but with or without the U.S. Attorney's office, there's a problem that needs to be addressed. And that's exactly what this committee is doing."  

Meanwhile, a separate task force comprising Somali-American and Muslim community members met this week for the first time to address the threat of radicalization and ways to support the youth. The group is backed by about 50 Muslim organizations that have joined a statement coming out strongly against Luger's program.

Jaylani Hussein, the head of the Minnesota chapter on the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he remains concerned about efforts to expand social services in the Somali community through the lens of counterterrorism. Many Somali-Americans find that approach stigmatizing, he said.