Minnesota tries softer approach in battling Islamic State

Liz Goodwin
Senior National Affairs Reporter
Somali Muslims pray during a Somali Week soccer tournament championship game between a team from Columbus, Ohio, and a Minneapolis team at the Hamline University stadium on June 26, 2011, in St. Paul, MN.  (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Think your friend or son or cousin may be interested in joining the Islamic State? Don’t call the cops. At least, not if you’re in Minnesota. 

A new strategy that will be tested out in the Twin Cities of Minnesota this fall uses a “community intervention team” of religious and business leaders to respond to concerns of radicalization—not law enforcement. 

The nascent plan is one of many experiments supported by the federal government’s Countering Violent Extremism strategy. Leaders from the federal program’s three pilot cities — Boston, Los Angeles and the Twin Cities — are meeting for a three-day summit at the White House this week to discuss how best to fight back against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) and other terror networks’ increasingly sophisticated recruiting techniques.

Last year in Minnesota, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger spoke to relatives and friends of a few of the 20 young Somali men who had left the country to become foreign fighters and asked them what they thought went wrong. Everyone’s stories varied, except for one key detail: They had sensed a change in their loved one before he left the Twin Cities to fight with terrorists. They just didn't know whom to tell, or were scared to involve law enforcement officials.

Now, the U.S. attorney has devised a possible fix for that problem. He’s tasked religious and business leaders of the Twin Cities’ Somali population — the largest in the country — to create “community-led intervention teams,” to whom worried parents or friends can take their suspicions of radicalization without involving the police.

A mother, for example, could turn to this group if she feared that her son was flirting with the idea of joining the Islamic State, without worrying he would be immediately arrested. The group would provide the young man with mental health support and explain to him why joining a bloody battlefield thousands of miles away is a bad idea.

 U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger spoke during a Somali community meeting on stopping terror recruits on September 28, 2014, at the Brian Cole Center in Minneapolis, Minn. (Renee Jones Schneider/Minneapolis Star Tribune/ZUMA Wire)

“The first phone calls will be to religious leaders, family counselors and mental health professionals,” Luger said of the intervention teams. “The community has said to me, ‘If we can turn this around, we want to do it on our own.’”

This is a marked difference from how the courts would treat someone making plans to join a terror network, which can be viewed by prosecutors as a crime of “material support,” which carries up to a 15-year prison sentence. Several young people have been sent to prison over the past year, including a 19-year-old woman from suburban Colorado, for planning to join the Islamic State overseas. Luger said the community intervention team will contact law enforcement if it cannot dissuade the person from wanting to join a terror network or if serious plans have already been made.

“Law enforcement will get involved if the person is serious about traveling and is taking steps to travel that cannot be handled at home,” he said. “But frankly, if this works the way we hope it will, there’ll be less work for law enforcement to do, which is our overall goal.”

The community intervention teams will set ground rules for which types of situations demand that they contact law enforcement. The specifics of those rules are still being worked out, Luger said.

Such “softer” approaches to combating radicalization and extremism have been tried out in Europe, but not formally in the U.S. Luger was inspired to test the strategy after he traveled to Denmark last August to learn more about how other countries are battling extremism. A group of mothers from the town of Odense said they met every Wednesday to discuss the young people in the community and to report any worrisome changes they had noticed. They intervened when necessary, offering mental health support and other services to kids who they suspected were radicalizing.

Hashi Garaad, 22, silences Khalid Sh-Osman, 8, as Khalid's brother Ali Sh-Osman, 11, sits by at left during the sermon before Friday prayers at the Darul Quba Cultural Center on June 24, 2011, in Minneapolis, MN. This cultural center, of the Suufi Islam sect that pushes a peaceful form of Islam, takes steps to minimize radicalization. In the last three years, at least 25 young men have disappeared from the Minneapolis area to fight for al-Shabab, and dozens more are being investigated for recruiting or fundraising on behalf of the terrorist organization. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

This kind of local experimentation is what the government’s “Countering Violent Extremism” plan is meant to encourage. Instead of developing a national, top-down strategy to prevent Americans from turning to jihad, the government named three pilot cities to launch different programs. “We recognized that the federal government was really not well-positioned to address radicalization because it tends to take place at a very, very local level,” said Quintan Wiktorowicz, a former National Security Council member who helped write the plan.

The U.S. attorney in each pilot area will lead the efforts, coordinating with the Department of Justice, National Counterterrorism Center and the Department of Homeland Security. Representatives from the three cities are attending a White House summit this week to discuss their strategies. Foreign leaders from more than 60 countries are also descending on Washington to talk about how to counter the appeal of the Islamic State and other extremist groups. President Barack Obama will address the summit twice and is expected to roll out new counterterrorism proposals during the week.

The State Department estimates that 12,000 men and women have traveled from foreign countries to join IS in Syria. Luckily for the United States, probably only 100 or so of them are Americans. But even though the U.S. government so far hasn’t faced the same challenges with overseas terrorist recruitment as countries in Europe, IS has managed to make inroads here with a sophisticated online presence and recruiting tactics.

No region has been more vulnerable to seductive recruiting techniques than Minnesota, which has been fighting radicalization for a decade, since al-Shabab began targeting the large Somali-American population there. More than 20 young men fled Minnesota and joined the terror network before 2010. Starting last year, IS supplanted al-Shabab as the biggest force on the terror recruiting scene. The group has made videos reaching out to Minnesotan youth specifically, and several young men left last year to join them in Syria, at least one of whom reportedly died fighting.

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek arrives before a packed hearing room to testify before a house public safety committee hearing testimony at the State Capitol on two bills dealing with the gun violence issue Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013 in St. Paul, Minn. (Jim Mone/AP Photo)

Local law enforcement in Minnesota has been working for years to get people in the Somali community to come to them with their concerns about people who might be considering becoming foreign fighters. Back in 2006, the Twin Cities’ police and sheriff departments were completely in the dark about the young men disappearing to join al-Shabab. Since then, they’ve ramped up their community outreach work, and it’s paid off. Lt. Dean Christiansen of the Minneapolis Police Department said a Somali mother and father contacted him last year to say they were worried that their teenage daughter was being recruited by IS. It turned out the daughter was going on an international soccer trip with her team and needed a visa, but her parents got spooked.

“We’ve found that we get more information by building that trust than spying on people,” Christiansen said.

Sheriff Rich Stanek of Hennepin County said he’s already built something akin to the “community intervention team” Luger envisions. The department has a community advisory board of religious and business leaders, both from within the Somali community and outside it, who people can call about their concerns without immeidately involving law enforcement. “They get calls, day and night, every day,” Stanek said. “That’s building those long-term communities of trust.”

But some civil rights groups and Muslim leaders do not yet feel that trust, especially when the federal government is involved. Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Minnesota, said he believes local community organizations should be in charge of countering violent extremism programming, without local or federal law enforcement. His suspicions spring from a past incident, when the St. Paul Police Department applied for a federal grant to find an “outreach program” that would also serve as a way to identify potential extremists.

“Could this program be a Trojan horse for community surveillance? That’s what we want to know,” Hussein said.

Luger and the Justice Department say there is no surveillance aspect of the program to counter violent extremism. In Minnesota, Luger’s pilot program will also provide job fairs and after-school programming to address the Somali community’s high unemployment rate. Boston and Los Angeles will also provide services to the community as part of their plans to counter violent extremism.

These efforts do not single Muslims out specifically, and Obama administration officials emphasize that the program is meant to stop all kinds of radicalization. But in a place like Minnesota, where foreign-fighter recruitment has occurred entirely among one group, it’s clear who the programs will target.

In this file photo of Thursday, Feb.17, 2011, Hundreds of newly trained Shabaab fighters perform military exercises in the Lafofe area some 18 km south of Mogadishu, Somalia. A new al-Shabab video, called âThe Path to Paradise,â promises more in a series spotlighting recruits from Minnesota who abandoned the comforts of home in order to wage jihad against foreign troops in Somalia. The video, which was originally available on YouTube but has since been taken down because it violates the websiteâs policy on violence, features masked men performing military drills in dusty camps as well as what appears to be footage of staged battles among Mogadishuâs ruined buildings. (Farah Abdi Warsame/AP Photo)

Mike German, a former FBI agent and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, said he believes combining counterterror goals and government outreach to young Muslim men and women is a bad idea.

“Government should be involved in outreach because they’re supposed to be community servants,” he said. “Suggesting that [the outreach] is to prevent them from becoming terrorists is unnecessarily stigmatizing.”

But Luger said his program is entirely community-led. He’s bringing eight Somali-American leaders with him to the summit in Washington, and he has met with more than 100 other Somali leaders to devise the plan.

“Instead of a stigma, what people in the community have said is, ‘We want to combat this. We want to turn that around, and these are the tools we need to do so,’” Luger said.

Correction: Rich Stanek is sheriff of Hennepin County, not St. Paul. Andy Luger met with some relatives and friends of a few of the 20 young men who became foreign fighters, but not all of them. 

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