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Minnesota's Somali community acts to counter ISIL recruiters

Program developed with Justice Department aims to encourage vulnerable teens to stay in school and reject extremism

Somali community leaders in Minneapolis are working with U.S. authorities to develop a program inspired by gang-prevention methods to steer disaffected youths away from extremist groups overseas.

The program — a mix of mentorship, psychological care and after-school programs — has been developed to give more opportunities to mostly young Somali-American men in Minnesota, home to the largest population of Somalis in the United States.

It follows concern that recruiters of extremist groups are targeting members of the Somali community. Since 2007 at least 23 Minnesotans have left the U.S. to fight with Al-Shabab, an Al-Qaeda-linked group based in Somalia, according to local media.  Meanwhile a grand jury, convened last spring, is investigating an alleged recruitment pipeline set up by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported.

Federal authorities believe that roughly a dozen Somali-Americans from the Twin Cities, including two women, have flown to the Middle East to aid ISIL, responsible for brutally carving out swaths of Iraq and Syria.

Just last week, the Justice Department charged two young Minnesotans — Abduallahi Yusuf, 18, and Abdi Nur, 20 — with conspiring to provide support to ISIL.

Yusuf was released to his parents but Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis reversed that order Wednesday after federal prosecutors argued that Yusuf deceived his parents before and was likely to try it again. Davis said he couldn't envision any bail conditions that would ensure Yusuf appears for future court dates.

Nur, who was charged in absentia, is believed to be fighting in the Middle East. A FBI report said he sent text messages from Syria to people in Minnesota, saying, "You can’t come looking for me, it’s to late for that" and "I’m not coming back.”

In a bid to counter the apparent lure of such groups to disaffected youths, Minneapolis Somali leaders have called on the state government to provide more opportunities for vulnerable teens.

Now, in conjunction with the Justice Department, community leaders are adapting successful gang intervention programs to do the same with countering the pull of overseas groups. The program “Countering Violent Extremism,” could provide job placement, step-up mentorship efforts and add more mental health professionals in the community.   

The Minnesota program is one of three that will be piloted across the U.S. by the White House and the Department of Homeland Security, as early as later this month. It is the only one expected to focus exclusively on Somalis, reflecting the perceived vulnerability of teens in the community.

Census numbers suggest that there are more than 125,000 Somalis living in the U.S., with nearly 40,000 of those in Minnesota, although some demographers have suggested the actual number in the state is higher. Most Minnesotan Somalis live in the Minneapolis and St. Paul metro area, known as the Twin Cities. After arriving in the 1990s during Somalia’s civil war, they were funneled into the state's experienced refugee agencies by aid workers and supported by welfare benefits more generous than other states.

Minnesota’s Somalis say they often face discrimination and prejudice, such as profiling at airports and bullying in schools.

“Anyone that experiences mistreatment feels that they don’t belong,” said Abdimalik Mohamed, education director for Ka Joog, a mentorship group for Somalis in the state. He said he was detained by custom officers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport as he headed on a U.S. government-sponsored diplomatic trip to Kenya in January.

Usha Tummala-Narra, an associate professor in counseling psychology at Boston College who works with Muslim immigrants, says feeling like you don’t belong and being mistreated is a key reason why Somali teens are vulnerable to recruitersIn a 2013 Minnesota Student Survey, one in three Somali high school students said they were harassed or bullied because of their religion.

Tummala-Narra says it can be difficult for immigrants who are juggling cultural divides at home and at school to talk about difficulties they may be having.

“They become vulnerable when they become isolated, when they can’t talk to others about what’s bothering them,” said Tummala-Narra.

Groups like ISIL may take advantage of that isolation, she said, adding: “Someone [who’s vulnerable] may respond to an organization that promises a great deal of value. It’s a way to secure some psychological home.”

Mohamed Farah, executive director of Ka Joog, agrees. "What they’re doing is selling how to be a hero, [saying] 'why don’t you come over and lead this army with these big weapons'," he said. "That’s very enticing to somebody that really has no direction."

The program to combat such isolation mixes mentorship and mental health support with job programs. Minnesota’s unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the nation, at 3.9 percent. But in the Somali community, especially among young adults, it is much higher, according to Ben Petok, communications director in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Support, especially for school-aged Somalis, can ease the path to employment.

Ahmed Amin came to the U.S. when he was 13-years-old and spoke no English. He says support from teachers in junior high and high school encouraged him to pursue college.

“It's powerful when you come to a new country and people tell you 'you can do it’,” said Amin, who is now a high school social studies teacher in the Minneapolis Public Schools system.

Salah Ali hopes to follow Amin as an educator. He’s taking advantage of one of the first state-sponsored scholarships for Somali teachers at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. He says putting more Somalis in classrooms could help convince community students to stay in school.

“If they see people of their color in places they haven’t seen them before, that might encourage them to see things in a different way,” Ali said.

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