“Was she of Somali descent?”
That was one of the questions that rose the loudest from the press gaggle following last week’s tragic Capitol Hill shooting. Although unclear why the question was asked, it came moments after Capitol Police Chief Kim Dine completed a press conference in which he definitively stated, there was “no nexus to terrorism.”
Just a few blocks away was Mohammed Farah, who had spent the day on Capitol Hill testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“That really disappoints me,” he said upon hearing the question. “That’s what happens when people are closed-minded.”
Farah is one of 12 young Somali-Americans who set out to change the narrative about their immigrant community. He is the executive director of Ka Joog, a community group launched in 2007, during a time when the Somali terror group Al-Shabab was heavily recruiting Westerners to join their fight. Based in Minneapolis, the organization encourages young people to “Ka Joog,” Somali for “stay away”—not just from radicalization, but from the drugs, violence, gangs and other negative influences in the United States.
Their leading question: What if we could build a positive image of Somali, Africa, and its people here in America?
And yet, there he was, in the nation's capital, trying to make the right impression—and again facing the stereotype he was trying to fight.
After last month’s Nairobi mall attack—which left 67 people dead and over 200 wounded— Farah was on Capitol Hill for the House hearing called to assess the threat posed by the Somali al-Qaeda affiliate.
“Given our support for the African peacekeeping mission, and the fact that the U.S. remains a top al-Qaeda target, we need to get ahead of al-Shabab’s efforts to radicalize vulnerable youth,” Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) said in his opening remarks.
Farah lives that challenge, and urged lawmakers to expand their perspective.
“We get so focused on counterterrorism,” he said. “But we need to invest more in the community.” For Farah, the hearing was an opportunity “to educate [lawmakers] about what goes down on the streets of Minneapolis.”
Beyond the headlines
And sadly, what happens on the streets in Farah’s hometown is not such an unfamiliar concept in modern-day America. “As Americans, we see Somalis on television going out and killing people,” said Abdifatah Farah Ali, a Ka Joog founding member. “But we never look at the underlying issues. A lot happened to these young men to get them to that extreme place.”
Many young Somali-Americans lack job opportunities, mentorship, sense of direction, and often, a father figure.
“These are the things that need attention,” said Abdifatah Farah Ali, a Ka Joog founding member. “And so the real question becomes, ‘How do we tackle these underlying issues that we see in our community each and every day?’”
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), a native of Minneapolis and the first Muslim elected to Congress, is a big Ka Joog fan. Once they get to America, he argued, Somalis face many of the same issues that non-Somalis face.
“They are subject to everything else that low-income kids of color are subject to,” Ellison told America Tonight. “But they have one more problem: They have Muslim names, and maybe their language skills are not that strong. So, they are vulnerable.”
“Well, gang and criminal activity but also people saying, ‘Look, if you are going to be poor and black, why don’t you do it in a warmer climate where you speak the language?’”
And like it or not, the issue strikes a chord for some young Somali-Americans. “As we are trying to make a world for these kids to thrive in,” Ellison said, “they are dealing with cutting food stamps.”
Al-Shabab’s recruiting efforts
Al-Shabab, Farah said, tries to tap into the cultural disconnect many young Somali-Americans experience.
“Somalis have a very intimate culture," Farah said. "We all know each other. So when we are ripped away from our families at a young age, many feel very alone. That's where they are vulnerable. That's where they seek something meaningful.”
He added: “And what’s more meaningful than religion? This is what al-Shabab uses to come in and recruit these vulnerable boys.”
Ka Joog's challenge is to be a nimble competition for the hearts of young Somali-Americans. But challenging al-Shabab, and the promises made in their videos, remains an uphill climb.
“Online videos promise potential recruits a glamorous new life,” Royce said. “With the click of a button, they can find young men who look like them, rapping about a better future, and doing it while holding M-16s.”
“Art is our weapon”
Ka Joog’s counter-weapon? Art.
Take Abdifatah Farah Ali, a Ka Joog leader and an artist who goes by the stage name Abdi Phenomenal.
“I feel like I was born to carry out a message of peace to the world,” he said. “And I use spoken word as a piece to talk about certain issues that affect my people in this day and age, and in the times that I’m living in.”
One of Ka Joog’s programs is called Invisible Art. From spoken-word artists, to painters, to poets, to visual photographers, they invite local artists in to teach youth about their art and help generate conversations about the issues facing their community.
“These are artists within our own culture,” Farah said.
The artists, some of them legends in the Somali community, help attract the younger crowd. Sharing artwork leads to sharing stories.
“The exercise brings everyone together,” Ali said. “It sparks conversations about what they want to change in the world, their own questions of identity, and what it is like here [in the U.S.] versus back at home in Somalia.”
One foot in two worlds
Ka Joog is not in the business of making young Somali-Americans forget what they left behind in Mogadishu. They want at-risk youth to understand their traditions. “One of the key things for us is to connect kids here with people back in Somalia,” said Farah. “We want them to know that life and culture so when they go back they are not so unfamiliar with that culture.”
But connections so critical to Somali culture can cause suspicion and apprehension in their new homeland. The Kenya attack only intensified FBI interest in al-Shabab and its U.S. recruiting. In a Twitter post, the terror group claimed among the gunmen were three Somali-Americans whom they recruited from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and Kansas City.
Ubah Hussein, a Somali mother living in the Twin Cities, told America Tonight that what the FBI fears most - radicalization or recruitment - isn’t a primary fear of most Somali parents.
“What I fear most for my kids is that they are being monitored and profiled just because they happen to be Somali and Muslim. We feel like someone’s watching over our shoulders,” she said. “So there’s a lot of tension.”
Working with law enforcement
Ka Joog is trying to find the balance between legitimate scrutiny and respect, working with an array of agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and local law enforcement.
“In order for our community to move forward on these issues,” Ali said, “we needed to tell them about who we are and where we come from.”
And, when appropriate, to help.
“So that when that thing happens in the community,” he said, “whether it’s a kid that got recruited, or someone who was stopped at the border, those necessary actions are taken. The community is actually for getting these negative seeds out.”
In turn, Ka Joog leaders and allies like Ellison argue the government needs to do more to bring opportunity into the community.
All agree the Kenya attack will put a new spotlight on this challenge, and on al Shabab itself.
The real threat of Al-Shabab
For some, the Westgate mall attack came as a surprise. Many considered al-Shabab to be severely weakened, if not badly bruised. After being pushed out of Mogadishu by counterinsurgents in 2011, they were rendered practically incapable of controlling territory. More recently, reports surfaced about deep philosophical divisions within the ranks and several murders took place within their inner circle. Perhaps most notably was Omar Hammami, known to many as “the American,” who was killed in an ambush ordered by the group’s leader.
“They needed to make a big splash,” Ellison said. "And this was it.”
And that splash impacts those who want nothing to do with the terror and killing.
“Honestly, it really hurts it. It hurts me. It hurts my family. It hurts the community. It hurts Somalia,” said Ali. “It hurts the image of the identity of what it means to be Somali. And it is not something that any Somali is proud of whatsoever.”
A horrific attack in Kenya, and an inexplicable question at that Capitol Hill stakeout, underscores the challenge to Farah.
“We have assimilated,” Farah said. “But there is still work before us.”
Before Farah flew home to Minneapolis, there was one last reminder - a rigorous screening from the TSA.
"This," Farah said, "usually takes me a while.”