Sign in to follow this  

The Threat from ‘Minnesota Men’. Where ISIS goes for American recruits.

Recommended Posts


Somali American

If you get your news from the headlines, you can be excused for thinking that “Minnesota men” pose a special risk of taking up the terrorist jihad at home and abroad. As theWall Street Journalreported this past April, for example, “U.S. charges six Minnesota men with trying to join ISIS.” The “Minnesota men” featured in such headlines are almost invariably drawn from Minnesota’s swelling population of Somali Muslim immigrants. The state—mostly the metropolitan Twin Cities area—is home to 35,000 such immigrants, the largest Somali population in North America.

Starting in the 1990s, the State Department directed thousands of refugees from Somalia’s civil war to Minnesota. As Kelly Riddell pointed out in the Washington Times this past February, in Minnesota these refugees “can take advantage of some of America’s most generous welfare and charity programs.” Riddell quoted Professor Ahmed Samatar of Macalester College in St. Paul: “Minnesota is exceptional in so many ways but it’s the closest thing in the United States to a true social democratic state.” After a dip in 2008, the inflow of Somalis has continued unabated and augmented by Somalis from other states. If it takes a village, Minnesota has what it takes.

Unfortunately, according to a September report of the House Homeland Security Committee task force on combating terrorist and foreign fighter travel, Minnesota also leads the country in contributing foreign fighters to ISIS. Reviewing the public cases of 58 Americans who had joined or attempted to join ISIS, the task force found that 26 percent of them came from Minnesota. When it comes to exports to ISIS, we’re number one.

In a presentation to Minnesota’s National Security Society last month, FBI Minneapolis chief division counsel Kyle Loven conveyed the impression that his office is devoting substantial resources to terrorism-related issues. “We have four national security squads working this thing,” he said.

The April charges against six Minnesota men represented the culmination of a 10-month FBI investigation. The charges and the FBI affidavit setting forth the basis for them strongly suggest the existence of an ISIS recruiting network aimed at or operating in the Twin Cities. The FBI affidavit details the recruitment of individuals and provision of assistance to those who want to leave Minnesota to fight abroad. According to an unnamed local FBI informant, ISIS recruiter Abdi Nur (formerly of Minnesota) “may have a trusted contact in Mexico who could provide false passports to those members of the conspiracy interested in traveling from the Twin Cities to Syria from Mexico.” (Nur hasn’t been heard from recently and may have been killed.)

Somali Minnesotans have been the focus of law enforcement concern for nearly 10 years.

The Department of Justice acknowledges that since 2006, “overseas terror organizations” have targeted Twin Cities residents to join al Shabaab (an al Qaeda-allied group in Somalia) and ISIS. Over five years ending in 2011, Operation Rhino targeted al Shabaab recruiting in Minnesota and resulted in the indictment of 20 individuals. Since 2013, according to the Department of Justice, ISIS has targeted “Twin Cities residents” (i.e., Somalis). The Minneapolis division of the FBI and local law enforcement authorities devote substantial resources to deterring and interrupting the recruitment of Minnesota Somalis.

In the case of the six men, law enforcement benefited from an informant. In his October presentation, the FBI’s Loven queried how long law enforcement will be able to count on such informants. Loven highlighted the increasing difficulty of tracking the radicalization of individuals online given the evolution of social media and the growing use of encrypted communications. “We are behind the eight ball when it comes to online communication,” he said.

Even before the massacres committed by ISIS in Paris, local law enforcement authorities feared that Minnesota’s Somali immigrants might take up the cause locally. In February, al Shabaab released a video identifying the Mall of America as a terror target. Both Minneapolis and the Mall of America lie within Hennepin County and the jurisdiction of the county’s sheriff, Rich Stanek. Stanek commented at the time: “We train, we exercise, we plan and prepare incessantly hoping something bad never happens but knowing full well each and every day across this country, world, it does. But we are prepared.”

Nevertheless, law enforcement is sensitive to concerns about the attention paid to Minnesota’s Somali community. In an interview for this article, Stanek bristled when I asked him about security issues raised by the Somali community. Why was I doing that? I referred to the House report recognizing Minnesota’s contribution of 26 percent of the American fighters joining ISIS. “I just came from an FBI briefing this morning,” Stanek said. “They told me we’re 20 percent.”

Under the rubric of Countering Violent Extremism, the Obama administration has designated Minneapolis-St. Paul for implementation of a pilot program to deter ISIS recruitment in the Somali community. The program—Building Community Resilience—plows new ground in euphemism. According to the Department of Justice, “This effort seeks to bring together community-based organizations and local partners, including the Minneapolis and St. Paul school systems, interfaith organizations, nonprofits and NGOs, and state, county, and local governments. These organizations will together create community-led intervention teams. In addition, the plan brings mentorship programs, scholarships, afterschool programs, and job trainers and placement officers into the Somali community to build community resilience and address the root causes of radicalization.”

What are the root causes of radicalization according to the program? Several are set forth in a February 2015 brochure issued by the Minnesota office of the United States attorney, and they seem mostly to derive from the Marie Harf school of terrorist sociology. Harf is the former deputy State Department spokesman who famously identified “lack of opportunity” as leading “people to join these groups.” In September U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger held a press conference to announce the accomplishments of the first year of Building Community Resilience. They included “a mentorship program for Somali youth operated by Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities, .  .  . the Opportunity Hub, which is a public, private and community partnership to provide a one-stop shop for education and workforce resources .  .  . [and] nearly $500,000 of private and government grant funding to be administered by” the nonprofit organization Youthprise. “This is just the beginning of what we hope to accomplish,” Luger said.

Although unemployment among Minnesota’s Somalis remains high, the problem is probably not attributable to lack of opportunity. The six young Somali men charged in April attended local schools and/or had jobs. Indeed, one of the men told an FBI informant in a recorded conversation “that as long as he had a job, no one [would] suspect him of anything.” ISIS recruiter Abdi Nur attended a local community college and spoke of becoming a lawyer. “Then he started visiting a new mosque and dressing in more traditional garb,” the New York Times reported in a March profile of Nur by Scott Shane. “His case suggests that the Islamic State may rely on recruiters inside the United States and shows how hard it is to predict who will be swept away by ideological fervor.” Prominently featured in the April charges is another local mosque conveniently situated in the neighborhood of one “alternative” Minneapolis high school serving mostly Somali students and attended by one of the defendants charged in April. (The Minneapolis School District has just moved to take over management of the school.)

Building Community Resilience appears to rest in part on the proposition that lack of financial resources contributes to recruitment of Minnesota Somalis, although the evidence supporting the proposition is thin. The FBI affidavit supporting the April charges demonstrates a fine-grained knowledge of the multifarious financial resources available to Somali Minnesotans. The affidavit reveals that one of the defendants withdrew $5,000 in cash from his federal financial aid debit card in the weeks leading up to his attempted departure to join ISIS.

Obvious questions beyond the empirical basis of Building Community Resilience remain unanswered. What will we do if any of the Minnesota men who have joined ISIS come marching home? It’s a question on the mind of one local reporter, who asked Minnesota senator Al Franken about it in the immediate aftermath of the Paris massacres. Franken responded: “Well, this recruitment of Somali Minnesotans has been something that I’ve been dealing with since I first got to the Senate when they were being recruited to go to Somalia and fight with Shabaab. This is a very, very small number of young men and women. Each one is a tragedy for their family. It’s dangerous, you know, for us, especially if they’re allowed to return, which we don’t allow unless we are tracking them. But the large, vast majority of Somali Minnesotans are as against this as every other American.” Asked by email what Senator Franken meant by they’re not being allowed to return “unless we are tracking them,” a spokesman failed to respond. As with so many matters related to “Minnesota men” seeking ISIS, we are left to puzzle it out for ourselves.

Scott W. Johnson is a Minneapolis attorney and contributor to the site Power Line


Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Restore formatting

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Sign in to follow this