Anti-extremism programs may see boost in state funds

Updated: 7:55 p.m. | Posted: 6:17 p.m.

Two anti-terrorism efforts in Minnesota are still in play after a committee hearing Wednesday at the state Capitol.

The measures are intended to fund community programs that make young people more resilient to extremist ideology, whether it's through mentoring programs or outreach efforts aimed at deepening ties between the Somali-American community and law enforcement.

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But how the efforts have been framed — as a means to prevent terrorism — has been controversial.

Faribault Police Chief Andy Bohlen, whose department won a similar grant last year, told lawmakers he has taken some heat from people offended by the title of the bill, which includes the phrase "combating terrorism recruitment."

"My opinion on it: It does the same thing, whatever we call it," Bohlen said. "It's building connections with these youth so they trust law enforcement."

Last year, his department split $250,000 with the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, which received the other state grant administered by the Department of Public Safety.

In a partnership with the Faribault Diversity Coalition, Bohlen said his officers have participated in events aimed primarily at Somali-American youth, including soccer and basketball events, outings to Minnesota Twins games and trips to rope courses.

Through such efforts, Bohlen said, his officers have also won the trust of mosque elders and other leaders in Faribault's growing Somali community. Even former skeptics have come around to realize the benefits of the initiatives, he said.

"It's not a spy program," he said. "It's a way to build relationships."

The money for the programs runs out in June; the bill before lawmakers would allow the state to award $250,000 to local law enforcement agencies. The money is specifically targeted at preventing youth from being recruited by al-Shabab and ISIS.

There was no discussion at the hearing of violent white supremacist groups.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, who chairs the House public safety committee, said there's no need to water down the language in the anti-terrorism legislation.

"I don't think you should diminish or minimize the word 'terrorism,'" he said. "I think you should scare the heck out of these kids, what they could face from recruitment of terrorism."

Federal authorities say over the past decade, about two dozen young Minnesota men traveled to Somalia to join the extremist group al-Shabab. More recently, the threat has come from the Islamic State terror group in Syria. Nine men in that conspiracy were sentenced last fall.

A second bill at the Capitol seeks $1.2 million over two years for a nonprofit that has brought together Somali-American mothers and federal authorities.

Farhio Khalif, who heads the Voice of East African Women, told lawmakers that when she first heard about ISIS recruitment a few years ago, she didn't know anything about it.

"Today, I can sit in front of you and say, 'Yes, it's real. ISIS is real. Recruitment is real. Terror is real," said Khalif, who is a member of a Somali-American task force that was championed by former U.S. Attorney Andy Luger.

Khalif said the grant would help her expand her work with East African youth who are vulnerable to not only extremist groups, but local gangs.

But some Somali-American community leaders are critical of such efforts and contend that seeking money to help youth through the lens of counterterrorism is stigmatizing. And researchers warn there is no single profile of a terrorism recruit, nor is there evidence that "de-radicalization" efforts actually work.

A national effort known as Countering Violent Extremism has faced such a backlash that one Somali-American nonprofit recently rejected $500,000 in federal money.

In Minnesota, both pieces of anti-terrorism legislation are bound for a bigger public safety bill.