Minnesota groups seek money to keep youths from extremism

A community advocate who spends his days helping Somali families and a youth soccer coach who works to keep kids off the street are among the people lining up for a crack at federal and private funds aimed at stopping terror recruiting.

Friday was the deadline for applicants to request roughly $400,000 in money being administered by a nonprofit entity as part of Minnesota's efforts to stamp out violent extremism. The program is part of a three-city pilot project, which includes Boston and Los Angeles, launched more than a year ago by the Obama administration.

Minneapolis' program, called Building Community Resilience, focuses on the state's large Somali community, which has been fertile ground for terrorism recruiters. More than 22 men have left the state since 2007 to join al-Shabab in Somalia, and roughly a dozen people have left in recent years to join militants in Syria.

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•Related: New Somali youth programs launched amid terror recruitment concerns

Andy Luger
U.S. Attorney Andy Luger spoke with The Associated Press two years ago about a Department of Justice pilot program designed to detect American extremists who are looking to join terrorist organizations overseas.
Jeff Baenen/AP

It was unclear how many people or groups had applied for funding by Friday's deadline. Grant awards will be announced March 9.

Minnesota U.S. Attorney Andy Luger said he's excited about the program's progress and he's trying to get additional funding, both federal and private. He pointed to a bill Obama signed into law in December that includes $50 million for efforts that combat terrorism as a possible source. Luger noted that $10 million of that appropriation is specifically for states' efforts to prevent violent extremism, though it's not yet known how much of that money will flow to Minnesota.

Mohamud Noor, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, is among those who requested money. On any given day, a half-dozen or more community members are lined up outside Noor's office, seeking help for legal troubles, jobs or for housing issues. This week, one mother came to him about a teenage son on the verge of getting kicked out of school. In those situations, Noor works with parents, schools and teens to stop bad situations from getting worse.

Noor said he is proposing "a community transformation" that will include education, mentoring and job training. While he knows the money available won't cover all the community's needs, he said he hopes it will lead to efforts that the community can sustain.

"The bottom line is, we are going to try to come up with a comprehensive program that addresses the youth and links them to the community, links them to their times, links them to their neighborhood," he said. Any money would likely go toward hiring qualified mentors and counselors who can connect with youth, he said.

Some community members who were interested in applying for grants chose not to in the end.

Mohamed Ahmed, who runs AverageMohamed.com and creates cartoons to try to persuade kids not to join extremist groups, said his group discussed whether it should take money that comes via the Department of Justice; some in the community distrust the government. To counter that concern, the grants are being administered through the nonprofit group Youthprise, and the U.S. Attorney's Office has no role in deciding awards or distributing funds.

I'm just doing it to save my community. ... All I care about is to help those kids to achieve their goals, to be successful, to become a good citizen.

In the end, Ahmed said the DOJ's involvement wasn't a factor in his decision. He ended up not applying for funding because he couldn't get a grant writer and he said the application requirements were too strict.

Ahmed Ismail, who coaches youth soccer, applied. His program, the West Bank Athletic Club, runs soccer programs, after-school programs and mentoring to keep youth busy and off the street. He currently has 90 young people, ages 5 to 18, playing soccer, but more than 200 are on a waiting list. Any grant money would go toward facilities, uniforms and staff, said Ismail, who volunteers his time as coach.

"I'm not playing cops and heroes," he said. "I'm just doing it to save my community. ... All I care about is to help those kids to achieve their goals, to be successful, to become a good citizen."