Extremism in the Somali community of Minneapolis has long been a concern of American counterterrorism officials, as both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s ally al-Shabaab have been alarmingly successful at recruiting from the area. The district represented by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has seen more men and boys attempt to join foreign terrorist organizations over the last 12 years than any other district in the United States.
A Fox News report in February noted federal officials are still “highly concerned” about Minneapolis even though ISIS lost its “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq:
FBI stats show 45 Somalis left to join the ranks of either the Somalia-based Islamic insurgency al-Shabab, or the Iraq- and Syria-based ISIS combined. And as of 2018, a dozen more had been arrested with the intention of leaving to support ISIS. Both numbers are far higher than those of alleged terrorist wannabes who left or attempted to leave the country from other areas in the country where Muslim refugees have been resettled.
In the case of the Somalis, it’s no longer just the men. Early last year, a female was apprehended by authorities on charges of supporting providing material support to Al Qaeda and arson.
[…] “We are very conscious that there may still be fertile ground for that, and that is could re-start at any time,” one federal official told Fox News. “Based on historical experience, we had (an uptick) in 2007 and 2008 going for al-Shabab, then a lull. Then, as ISIS came back, we saw a whole bunch of people no longer headed for Somalia. They were headed for Iraq and Syria. That really caught us off-guard, we didn’t see that coming. It didn’t make sense to us. We understood why kids were going back to Somalia, but going to Syria was another we issue.”
The Fox report noted ISIS aggressively recruits online, while al-Shabaab works the insular Somali community with “word of mouth” and “face-to-face radicalization.” A major element of the al-Shabaab recruiting pitch involves blaming Somalia’s woes on foreign intervention and promising the terrorist group will create an Islamist paradise governed by strict sharia law.
National security analysts told Fox News part of the problem is the difficulty Somalian immigrants have with assimilating to American culture, making it easier for terrorist recruiters to play on their sense of alienation and exploit their affinity for Somali culture and Islam. The insular nature of the Somali community also makes it difficult for law enforcement to collect information or establish agents. A police crackdown on street gangs in Minneapolis further alienated Somali youth and drove them into extremist mosques.
The analysts who spoke to Fox were highly critical of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) because she seeks leniency for terrorist recruits and exacerbates the Somali community’s sense of paranoia and alienation:
As for Omar, she spoke up for a group of six Somalis arrested in 2015 for trying to cross into Mexico, as part of a plan to join ISIS in Syria. As the case went to trial the following year, the then-state representative wrote a letter to the trial judge requesting “compassion” – and lighter sentencing on behalf of one of the Minnesota men, who was facing 30 years jail time.
“Such punitive measures not only lack efficacy, they inevitably create an environment in which extremism can flourish, aligning with the presupposition of terrorist recruitment,” Omar wrote. “The best deterrent to fanaticism is a system of compassion. We must alter our attitude and approach; if we truly want to affect change, we should refocus our efforts on inclusion and rehabilitation.”
Her position has been slammed by those who say she hasn’t taken a tough enough stand.
“Rep. Omar is asking for our justice system to support known terrorists, this sets an extremely poor precedence and should not be allowed,” contended Rudolph Atallah, chief executive officer of White Mountain Research, and former Africa Counterterrorism in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “She clearly has a bias and an agenda and does not understand what the United States truly stands for.”
This analysis is hardly limited to Fox News. NPR published an entire series in 2009 about the “Somali-Minneapolis Terrorist Axis” that hit the same basic points. Al-Shabaab has operatives who specialize at recruiting and training young men from Minneapolis. The FBI has worried for a decade that some of those recruits will use their dangerous skills in the United States.
The Washington Post in July wrote of the dangerous paradox that efforts to combat radicalization in the Minneapolis Somali community tend to exacerbate the very “fear and paranoia” that give terrorist recruiters so much to work with.
The Obama administration’s deliberately vague “Countering Violent Extremism” project made things worse by not telling Somali youths exactly what they were supposed to be avoiding, although the Post also cited concerns that making the message more specific – such as renaming the initiative to “Countering Islamic Extremism” – would just alienate the community in a different way.
Local activists complain money spent on counter-extremism programs would be better invested in community improvements, with an eye toward turning young people away from extremism by getting them involved in sports or giving them better sources of information about traditional Somali culture than terrorist recruiters. Unfortunately, the community has a history of losing funds for high-minded projects to fraud, and some of that money might be ending up in the hands of al-Shabaab and other extremist groups.
Recommendations for solving the problem vary widely, but almost everyone familiar with the Somali community in Minneapolis agrees insularity and alienation are its biggest problems. It is therefore profoundly unhelpful to watch the national Democrat Party excuse Rep. Omar’s anti-Semitism by arguing she represents an inscrutable alien culture that Americans must learn to accommodate.