Magazine November 3, 2014, Issue

Twin Cities Terrorists

Worshipers attend evening prayers during an open house at the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis. (AP/Craig Lassig)
A community reacts to its jihadi sons and daughters

Minneapolis — “Are you a spy?”

Yusuf laughs as he says it, but the question is not unthinkable. I am, after all, likely the only person of pallor within a square half mile, and definitely the only one perusing the goods on offer in the Somali market at the corner of E. 24th St. and 10th Ave. S. — prayer rugs, pastel hijabs, and discount travel packages to Mecca, on sale to Minneapolis’s approximately 30,000 Somalis. The proprietors who eye me quizzically agree: I am not their target market.

When exactly their target market might arrive, though, is a mystery. Dozens of people are milling about, but none are shopping. The very few women, all older, are clerking the shop counters. There are many more men, of all ages, most of them seated idly around café tables. As the afternoon wears on, the crowd grows younger. One sees less traditional garb, more college sweatshirts and snapback caps.

Which is what Yusuf is wearing, as he leans against a counter and asks whether I am a spy. “There have been more white people around,” he remarks. “Especially with what’s been going on.”

What’s been going on is an exodus of Minnesotans to the Middle East to join up with the Islamic State — at least 15 Somali men and three women from Minneapolis, according to an ongoing FBI investigation. Twenty-nine-year-old Abdirahmaan Muhumed, for example, left nine children in Minneapolis to fight in Syria. In August, he became the second American to die fighting for the terrorist group, following the lead of the serendipitously named Douglas McArthur McCain, not a Somali but a fellow Minneapolitan. That same month, a 19-year-old Minneapolis girl told her parents she was going to a bridal shower. She called them weeks later from Syria, where she was nursing wounded Islamic State fighters.

This is not a new phenomenon. Authorities know of 23 Minnesotans who since 2007 have left to join the Somalia-based terrorist outfit al-Shabaab — responsible for, among other horrors, the 2013 Westgate shopping-mall massacre in Nairobi, Kenya, that left 67 dead.

How to account for this?

The Tusmo Times is a bilingual local newspaper one finds on windowsills at places such as the Somali restaurant Safari (which, in a nod to American ways, also offers quesadillas). The front page of the September 2014 edition features a photograph of a “Muslims Against ISIS” rally and an article by chief editor Abdirahman Mukhtar entitled “ISIS Is Not Just Un-Islamic, It Is Un-Cool Too.” When he learned in 2011 that al-Shabaab was recruiting at Minneapolis’s Abubakar As-Saddique mosque, Sheikh Abdirahman Ahmad, who heads the mosque, “clarified everything,” he told Minnesota Public Radio in September. “We said, ‘If you are radical, go somewhere else. Don’t come to the masjid [mosque].’ . . . If we see anybody who’s infected, we immediately kick [him] out from the masjid.”

Many in the community have expressed a similar abhorrence of extremism. Abdirizak Bihi’s 17-year-old nephew Burhan Hassan was killed in 2009 fighting for al-Shabaab. Since then, Bihi has spearheaded the community’s anti-radicalization efforts. When the Council on American-Islamic Relations tried to insinuate itself into the FBI investigation into radicalization in 2009, Bihi accused the group of discouraging Somalis from cooperating with law enforcement and organized a protest. He has declared that Minneapolis’s Somalis are “100 percent against terror.”

But there are indications otherwise. Bihi’s own efforts have made him a pariah in some circles. He has been barred from services at one local mosque.

In 2011, Amina Farah Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, from the nearby burg of Rochester, were convicted by a federal court of sending money to al-Shabaab. Asked if the women had anything they wished to say to the court, Ali replied: “I am very happy. I’m going to heaven no matter. . . . You guys go to hell.” Meanwhile, dozens of Somalis gathered outside the courthouse to offer “a prayer for the women to go free,” as one religious leader told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. When the verdict was read, people wept.

#page#Unsurprisingly, investigations identify local mosques as seedbeds of radicalism. Twenty-one of the Minneapolis Somalis who have left to join al-Shabaab regularly attended Abubakar As-Saddique — which claims a zero-tolerance policy toward extremism. Osman Ahmed, a relative of Bihi and another uncle of Burhan Hassan, testified before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security that “these kids [who leave to fight with terrorist organizations] have no perception of Somalia except the one that was formed in their mind by their teachers at the Abubakar Center.” About terrorist recruiters, he noted that “they usually are well represented not only in certain mosques but wherever Somali children and young adults are concentrated. Such as community centers, charter schools operated by Somalis.” “Lies. . . . Very clear lies,” replied Abubakar executive director Omar Hurre at the time.

Community members blame other factors. At a recent community meeting on radicalization and recruitment, Mohamud Noor, a Somali member of the Minneapolis school board, pointed to social and economic marginalization: “When so many young people are looking for opportunities and they’re denied . . . because of their color, my dear friends, there is no simple solution.” I ask Yusuf, who is 21, if it is hard for young people to find jobs: “No,” he says, “not as long as you’re looking.”

Bihi and others point to identity conflicts. U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger tells me that terrorists, like gangs, seize on the internal struggles of Somali youths: for instance “What does the future look like for me? Who cares for me?” — what Luger describes to me as “standard disenfranchised-late-teen” questions — as well as “Am I Somali-American? Or am I American-Somali?” He hopes that adding Somalis to the local law enforcement, strengthening the local school and health systems, and expanding after-school and other youth-outreach programs will provide “positive alternatives” that will help young Somalis “feel their identity is secure.” Said Amano Dube, director of the Brian Coyle Community Center, at the September 28 meeting: “If we have . . . programs like that, no one will choose negativity.”

But “negativity” is hardly the temptation. Last year al-Shabaab released an online recruiting video specifically targeting the Gopher State. Minnesota’s Martyrs: The Path to Paradise follows three Twin Cities men from recruitment to glorious death under the banner of Allah. Dahir Gure, who left for Somalia in October 2007, is terrorist and pitchman: “This is the real Disneyland,” he proclaims. “You need to come here and join us, and take pleasure in this fun!”

The Islamic State has followed al-Shabaab’s example. In September the organization released an hourlong recruitment video, Flames of War, toward the end of which a “captured Syrian soldier” is shown digging his own grave. He wonders at the power of his conquerors: “It’s as if Allah has blessed the Islamic State. They captured the 17th Division base in a matter of seconds. They captured it in a matter of seconds. Even though there were 800 of us, and they only numbered in the dozens. . . . The Free Syrian Army couldn’t capture it. No one was able to capture the base. But just a few dozen fighters from the Islamic State captured the base.” Those susceptible to the desire for conquest are unlikely to be deterred by better latchkey programs: Burhan Hassan was an honors student with his eye on Harvard.

The problem likely resides in Somali culture, particularly as it has found expression in America. Somali cashiers at Minneapolis Targets have refused to check out pork products. Somali cab drivers at the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport have refused to transport passengers with dogs or with alcohol. And these are not “radicals.” They are the same types who frequent the local Islamic bookstore, where volumes of Koranic prohibitions are available from a publishing house in Riyadh. Somali parents do not want their children dying overseas, but a driving force of that recruitment — Islam — is an integral part of Somalis’ lives that even in its benign forms entails tension with the Twin Cities’ pluralism. And that tension is only amplified, and the risk of radicalization augmented, by the fact that most American Somalis prefer, when it comes to the U.S. of A., to have one foot in and one out. Being a community of refugees, forced to flee a country torn by two decades of civil war, their embrace of America is grateful, but not necessarily enthusiastic. In the Somali community, a young St. Paul man can say unironically that he was “shocked” to learn that his friend had died fighting for the Islamic State in Syria, because “I thought he [was] going to Ethiopia and fighting.”

So if the Somali-American community is unlikely to reform itself, what are the FBI, law enforcement, and others concerned about the threat of radicalization to do? As Ayaan Hirsi Ali, herself a native Somali, once asked: “How do you extend your social solidarity to people who don’t want it?” The panel of thinkers to whom she posed that query in 2006 did their best to dodge it. Minnesotans, and Americans, cannot afford to.

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