State officials, imams talk up community outreach at White House

Published 10:36 am Thursday, February 19, 2015

By Allison Sherry

Minneapolis Star Tribune

WASHINGTON — Minnesota law enforcement, politicians and Muslim leaders gathered Wednesday at the White House to tout a nascent, community-backed program as a model for attempts to prevent youths from being swept away to fight with jihadist groups abroad.

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Sharing a stage with authorities from Paris, Boston and Los Angeles at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, the Minnesota leaders stressed the early successes of the new pilot project.

Operating in public schools, the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and mosques, the project targets mostly disenchanted Somalis in hopes of immunizing them from the slick recruiting tactics employed by extremists abroad.

The summit is aimed at bringing national, international and local leaders together to develop community-based methods for thwarting terrorist recruitment.

Minnesota was the focus Wednesday because of its large Somali population, its innovative approach and the number of would-be terrorists recruited from the state.

FBI officials said more than 20 Minnesotans have been charged in connection with terrorism in the past several years. In 2014 alone, at least three Minnesotans were reported killed while fighting in Syria or Iraq for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL.)

One terrorist group crafted a recruitment video tailored specifically to Minneapolis youth, with a picture of an outbound plane ticket from its airport.

President Obama offered some gentle but frank criticism to the assembled leaders, who included imams from Minnesota.

“The older people here, as wise and respected as you may be, your stuff is often boring compared to what they [terrorist recruiters] are doing,” he said, eliciting applause and laughter. “You’re not connected. And as a consequence, you are not connecting.”

Imam Abdisalam Adam, director of Minneapolis’ Dar Al-Hijrah mosque, said that if authorities cooperate with local Somalis, the effort will work.

“Mosques serve as a beacon of hope,” he said. Adam has encouraged those who attend his mosque to trust police and get alienated young people re-engaged through after-school mentors and sports or through school counselors. Minneapolis Public Schools have recently brought on youth workers at a few schools considered to have the most at-risk students.

“Young people in one way or another get alienated, in one way or another they lose their way,” said Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., addressing the three-day international Countering Violent Extremism summit.

Minnesota’s efforts have brought division among Somalis. Some say the moves to forge partnerships with local police, school district officials and prosecutors serve largely as a platform for surveillance.

Earlier this week, those affiliated with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said they explicitly didn’t want mosques to become places of spying. Jaylani Hussein, director of the group, said much of what was happening in Minnesota “blurs the line between community outreach and intelligence gathering.”