Minneapolis FBI refused to use Somali outreach for spying

Published 10:09 am Thursday, January 29, 2015

By Paul McEnroe

Minneapolis Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — The FBI directed its agents in Minneapolis and five other U.S. cities in 2009 to use community outreach with Somali groups as cover to gather intelligence on terrorist recruiting efforts and on individuals who would likely be vulnerable to being radicalized, according to a newly released memo that outlines the secretive operation.

Email newsletter signup

But the Minneapolis field office refused from the start to follow the spying directive, approved by then-FBI Director Robert Mueller in the waning months of the Bush administration, saying its efforts to build strong relations with Somalis would be destroyed under such a plan, an FBI spokesman in Minneapolis said Wednesday.

“We never followed it because at the time we believed our brand of community outreach would engender the trust we’d built up here,” said Kyle Loven, the FBI’s spokesman in Minneapolis. “We took great care to make sure our outreach specialists were not involved in any investigations.”

In December 2010, the Obama administration ordered that the spy operation against Somalis be stopped immediately, saying that the bureau’s community outreach programs “must not report to the Field Intelligence Group or to an operational squad or task force,” according to an FBI directive obtained by the Star Tribune.

“It is important to maintain an appropriate separation between outreach activities conducted to build trust and confidence, and those conducted with specific operational or intelligence purposes, i.e., human source development or setting tripwires as authorized” the overriding directive stated. “A Special Agent or Intelligence Analyst attached to an operational squad should not engage in community outreach. Under no circumstances may an FBI employee engage in any effort to dissuade individuals from adopting, practicing or espousing a particular religious belief.”

In 2007, FBI agents in Minneapolis began investigating terrorist recruiting efforts in the Twin Cities that resulted in the first wave of young Somali men departing to fight with Al-Shabab, the Somalia-based group aligned with Al-Qaida. Known as the “Travelers” case, the FBI sought to understand why at least 22 Somalis in the Twin Cities left between 2007 and 2009 to join up with terrorists in their homeland.

“We’d been two years into bridge-building and we wanted to stay on the right track — our intentions were good and honorable,” Loven said. He said he could not speak to whether field offices in other cities followed the directive out of Washington.