Somali moms and dads gather to combat terror recruitment

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Greeting a friend
Community organizer Camilla Jamal, right, hugged one of her friends from the Lyndale Neighborhood Association's Somali Women's Leadership program before Thursday night's town hall meeting.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

After evening prayers and a reading of the Koran Thursday night, Farhio Khalif told a small audience inside the Sabathani Community Center in south Minneapolis about a Somali mom whose son went missing.

"She's afraid. And she told me, 'I know my son is dead in Syria.' He left last year. But she doesn't know what's going on, or how he ended up over there," she said.

"But you know what, she wants to talk about [it], and advocate."

Khalif switched from speaking in English to Somali, and told the audience about the hardships many moms face, including a growing number who are parenting alone.

Khalif and her group, Voice of East African Women, had organized the town hall meeting to address the recruitment of young Somalis for terrorist groups. Federal investigators say more than 20 young Minnesotans have left or attempted to leave the state to join ISIS and other extremist groups in the Middle East.

Awaiting the meeting's start
A community member awaited the start of the town hall meeting at Sabathani Community Center in Minneapolis Thursday.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

Saciido Shaie is a mother of three. She told the group, mostly Somali moms and dads, some with their children, that she's deeply concerned about her kids — and their future.

"Though I thought I figured it out, I am worried every minute," she said. "I know the language. I read. I figure things out. Imagine parents who never figured out any of that, who when the go to the grocery don't even know what they're looking for because of the language barrier."

Community member and mother Deqa Hussen
Community member and mother Deqa Hussen, whose eight children range in age from 4 to 20, spoke at the meeting.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

Deqa Hussen, a mother of eight, urged the audience to work with U.S. Attorney Andy Luger's office and the FBI.

"I need you guys to wake up and to tell your child, 'Who's recruiting you?' Ask what happened. 'Who talked to you when you lived in this house? Who's mentoring you?'" Hussen, whose children range in age from 4 to 20, said. "We have to stop the denial thing that we have, and we have talk to our kids and work with the FBI."

Luger told the audience that he's working closely with the Somali-American Taskforce, a 15-member group he helped create to end terror recruitment in Minnesota.

"This pilot program has nothing to do with spying on the community," Luger told the group, addressing the concerns of many Somali Minnesotans, who remain mistrustful of the program. "And if you have any doubt about that ... if we wanted to use these programs to spy on the community, why on earth would we be up here talking about them?"

Luger was joined at the meeting by state Sen. Jim Carlson, Rep. Karen Clark and FBI Special Agent Richard Thornton, who told the parents gathered that each person they prevent from going to Syria is a person they save. "[ISIS] is a terrorist organization. They are murderers. They're rapists. They enslave people. They commit attrocities on a daily basis," Thornton said.

Preparing questions during a town hall meeting
Saciido Shaie, second from left, prepared questions from the audience as Richard Thornton, right, special agent in charge of the FBI's Minneapolis division, spoke at the town hall Thursday.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

"We know there is a very strong likelihood that if some young person leaves Minnesota to join [ISIS] in Syria and Iraq, they're going to die in a battlefield there, and that's not something that we want to see happen to any young person from Minnesota or anywhere else."

As the evening drew to a close, Somali parents asked if there would be another town hall meeting like this one. The organizer told them this is just the beginning.