New Somali youth programs launched amid terror recruitment concerns

U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, right, and FBI special agent in charge Richard Thornton in April.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

Federal officials and Somali-American community members will announce Wednesday a slew of new programs intended to make Somali youth more resilient to recruitment and radicalization by overseas extremist groups.

The news comes on the same day that one of six young Twin Cities men arrested in April on charges of trying to join the terror group ISIS is expected to change his plea to guilty. Hanad Musse has a court hearing scheduled for 10 a.m.

The announcement about the community partnerships follows months of meetings held by U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger with Somali community members, foundations and corporations about a new federal pilot program launched in Minneapolis.

The Building Community Resilience pilot project, which was initially called Countering Violent Extremism, was launched last year and has since generated intense debates in the Somali community.

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In a briefing with reporters Tuesday, Luger said the project has received about $1 million in funding from state and federal grants, corporations and foundations.

"This is literally just getting done," Luger said. "It has been both gratifying and very interesting work to be engaged in."

He said Youthprise, a Minneapolis-based community foundation, will act as the project's fiscal agent and determine which projects will receive funding. The U.S Attorney's Office said it won't be involved in those funding decisions.

The pilot program has attracted the support of corporations such as Cargill and the Mall of America and non-profits groups including Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.

Cargill, for example, will launch a youth leadership institute for promising youth in the Somali community. Big Brothers Big Sisters of America is interested in starting a mentoring program in the Somali community, while the Mall of America will fund a youth-led program.

"This is the right thing to do," Luger said. "This is what community members asked us to do."

Between June and September 2014, Luger participated in a series of listening sessions with the Somali community and listened to their ideas on how to come up with programs and services for young people. In the months leading up to a counterterrorism summit at the White House in February, Luger worked with youth, community and religious leaders to devise a plan on how to solve these issues.

Somali-American community leaders, including imams and Minneapolis City Council member Abdi Warsame, attended the White House summit. Its focus was to highlight efforts to fight extremism in the Twin Cities, Boston and Los Angeles.

At the summit, psychotherapist Hodan Hassan, a member of the Somali American Task Force, said Somali-American youth struggle with who they are. "This identity crisis is the root cause, one of the root causes, of radicalization in Minnesota," Hassan said.

Hodan Hassan and Abdi Warsame
Hodan Hassan, left, and Minneapolis City Council Member Abdi Warsame, participate in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Pilot Program presentation during the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in February.
Carolyn Kaster | AP

After the summit, U.S Attorney's Office started working on developing public and private partnerships and bringing together stakeholders interested in being part of the project. He created the Somali American Task Force, which has about 15 Somalis, including imams, activists, parents and health professionals.

However, the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and some local mosques, are concerned about Luger's involvement in the program and the efforts to expand social services in the Somali community through the lens of counterterrorism.

To win over skeptics, Luger signed a memo with the task force earlier this year promising that his office would not use the program to gather intelligence.

During the listening sessions between June and September, community members told Luger there's a need for youth mentoring and he discussed with Somali-Americans how to address the early stages of radicalization.

"We're going forward with an exciting, innovative program that community members asked us to do," he said.

In an interview Tuesday, Luger also confirmed recent statements by Richard Thornton, special agent in charge of the Minneapolis FBI division. Luger said more young people are planning trips to Syria, even after the high-profile arrests of six men in April. Luger said he's working with concerned family members, but declined to say whether federal authorities have determined that the people who are believed missing have traveled to the Middle East.

"It's a tragic set of circumstances," he said. "We talk to families all the time who want our help in turning this around."

MPR News reporter Laura Yuen contributed to this report.