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St. Paul imam barred from Twin Cities airport tour blames feds

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Hassan Mohamud of the Minnesota Da'wah Institute
Hassan Mohamud of the Minnesota Da'wah Institute
Tom Baker for MPR News 2015

A St. Paul imam says federal officials abruptly pulled his invitation to review operations and screening at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport because he's been critical of federal anti-terror recruiting efforts in Minnesota.

Imam Hassan Mohamud of Minnesota Da'wah Institute said he was told he couldn't participate in a Feb. 18 tour of the airport organized by the Department of Homeland Security, even though he participated in last year's tour.

Homeland Security officials invited Mohamud in January to participate in the 2016 airport tour, part of the agency's ongoing efforts to engage with the Muslim community and address concerns about profiling and screening of Muslims. 

The invitation went to about 50 imams and community members in Minnesota. Participants were told they would have the opportunity during the tour to question DHS and Transportation Security Administration officials and get a first-hand look at airport operations and screening procedures. 

Mohamud was asked to send his personal information so that he could be cleared to access secure areas of the airport. He said he provided all the information that the DHS requested from him and was told by a DHS official that the department found no negative information.

On Thursday evening, Mohamud was preparing to participate in the tour. He'd cancelled an evening class he teaches at his mosque. 

But a few hours before the tour was to start, Mohamud said he got an apologetic call from a DHS official, notifying him that he wasn't cleared to participate.

"I was shocked," said Mohamud. 

He believes the government didn't allow him to participate in the airport tour because of his strong opposition to Countering Violent Extremism, the controversial federal pilot program intended to prevent radicalization in Minnesota's Somali community.

Launched in 2014 by the U.S. Justice Department, the program, also known as Building Community Resilience, has since generated intense debate in Minnesota. Some Minnesota Muslims have questioned the pilot's intent and raised concerns that it's simply a way to gather intelligence on local Somalis. 

Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Kris Grogan confirmed that Mohamud was deemed ineligible to tour the airport but wouldn't elaborate on why.

"When we hold these open houses and such at different locations it's not uncommon for someone to not be cleared due to maybe the passport number they put down was incorrect or some of the paperwork wasn't completely properly filled out all the way," said Grogan, adding that he could not discuss the case due to the privacy concerns.

On a weekly basis, Mohamud said he meets with around 1,000 people at his mosque. He said his congregants want to better understand the airport screening process, and why Muslims are frequently stopped at airports.

"How can I explain that when you block and prevent the imam to get this information?" he asked. "If you admit some imams and you deny other imams, that shows discrimination."