The Islamic State (ISIS) has been “lethally effective” in targeting the Somali-American community in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, which has been described as a terrorist pipeline to the Middle East.
ISIS’ recruiting success in the Twin Cities presents a grave threat to US security, as radicalized youth continue to travel to Syria and then back home to conduct an attack, according to a report for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate conducted by Erroll Southers and Justin Hienz, both at the University of Southern California-based DHS National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE).
“What the world is dealing with here is a snowball becoming an avalanche,” Hienz said. “The more people who travel to Syria, the more recruiters ISIS has, in turn expanding its potential to recruit even more people. There is simply no question that ISIS presents an enormous threat to US security.”
ISIS’ appropriation of Al Shabaab’s recruiting network in Minneapolis-St.Paul
The 2013 American Community Survey stated Minnesota contains the largest Somali-American population in the United States. In 2013, Minnesota was home to 38,873 Somali immigrants, and since then that number has dramatically increased.
The exact number is difficult to pinpoint because many Somali immigrants do not respond to census questions, having come from a background where government and law enforcement engage in aggressive, inhumane treatment of civilians.
For example, the building capacity of Riverside Plaza, an affordable housing plaza that often serves as the first place of residence for Somali immigrants, is 4,000, but community members and law enforcement estimate the number of residents to be closer to 10,000.
Nearly 56 percent of Somalis living in Minnesota are 24 years old or younger, with the median age being 21.3 years old. ISIS recruitment efforts often target these young Somali immigrants and have successfully lured many to Syria to fight and receive terrorist training.
For a number of years, Al Shabaab successfully targeted young people in Minnesota by appealing to their religious belief and nationalistic zeal for Somalia. However, Al Shabaab’s recruiting efforts have diminished since their peak in 2008-2009 after stories spread detailing the atrocities committed by the terrorist group. Now, instead of traveling to Somalia to join Al Shabaab, Minnesota’s Somali residents are traveling to Syria to join ISIS.
Beginning in 2014, ISIS began to appropriate Al Shabaab’s recruitment network, indicating “some collaboration between the two groups and suggesting a future direct alliance between them.” With ISIS’ mastery of social media and online tools as mechanisms for spreading propaganda and recruiting followers, the young Somali immigrant population in Minnesota is increasingly vulnerable to terrorist recruiters.
“Today, recruiters are again pulling young Somali immigrants to foreign terrorist groups, except now, young people are traveling to Syria,” the report stated.
Just weeks ago, Homeland Security Today reported that six Somali-Americans from Minnesota were arrested for attempting to travel to Syria to join ISIS.
“As charged, these two young men conspiredto join ISIS and travel from Minnesota to the Middle East to engage in a campaign of terror in support of a violent ideology,” said the US Attorney prosecuting the case. “Since Al Shabaab began recruiting young adults from the Twin Cities in 2007, our region has lost dozens of disaffected young people to terrorist organizations that would sooner see Somali Minnesotans die on foreign battlefields than prosper in peace and security in the United States.”
In addition, last year, a 33-year old Minnesota man, Douglas McAuthur McCain, who was recruited to fight for ISIS was killed in Syria, just five years after his high school friend Troy Kastigar died fighting for Al Shabaab in Somalia.
Since Somalis have no traditional, historical, or social ties to Syria, Heinz and Southers conducted the qualitative field study to unearth the reason behind the abrupt shift in destinations.
“It’s not just that they are perverting and recruiting our young people, not just that they are destabilizing a region where the United States has interests,” Hienz said in a blog post. “They will increasingly send these recruits back to the United States to conduct terrorist attacks.”
Risk factors for recruitment in Minnesota
Southers and Hienz discovered two common assumptions made about extremist recruiting are inaccurate in Minnesota—that poverty is the primary cause for radicalization and that social media is the chief mechanism for recruitment.
For example, a childhood friend of Zakaria Maruf, who left for Somalia in 2008, revealed that Maruf was a popular, athletic boy succeeding in school. After high school, he left a gang, the “Somali Hot Boyz” and began to live a life based on a strict interpretation of Islam. Maruf departed for Somalia based on his religious beliefs and nationalism—not because of poverty.
“They want to make it appear as if the people who left or want to leave, those who migrated for the sake of Allah, were people who did not have a life, and they simply want to wrong their name,” Maruf said in a 2009 statement broadcast over a Somali radio station. “These are lies and propaganda. It is not possible to brainwash or coerce a conscious, grown man. And where we come from is not a place where people are coerced or brainwashed.”
Moreover, the report’s authors did not find anydirect link between Minnesota Somali gangs and terrorist recruitment. One law enforcement officer said, “They don’t want that structure of trying to join ISIS or Al Shabaab where they have someone telling them what to do. They want to be out there on the block, doing whatever they want to do.”
As to the second assumption, although ISIS is well known for its success in using social media to recruit followers, but it’s not the primary mechanism for ISIS recruitment efforts in Minnesota. Recruitment in the Twin Cities almost always involves face-to-face interaction.
“Social media interaction and links to extremist online content reinforce the messages that recruiters offer in person,” the report stated. “To be sure, digital communication plays a role in recruitment, but at least in the Somali community in Minneapolis-St. Paul, in-person interaction is irreplaceable.”
The report’s authors said there is no "terrorist profile," however, there are a number of risk factors responsible for an individual choosing to join ISIS. One of the most commonly cited risk factors in the author’s interviews with the Somali community was a difficult parent-child relationship, which could be caused by language barriers between parent and child, long working hours, and a child’s abuse of parental trust.
Youth identity crisis, nationalism, culture clash and media coverage were also widely cited as risk factors for potential recruitment. In addition, while a strict, newfound religious belief can be a warning sign, increased religious activity is not always a problem, raising the question, “At what point does increased religious activity cross a line from a healthy embrace of belief to a negative, extreme interpretation of religious tenets?”
For example, one family did not see their 19-year old daughter’s increasing embrace of her religious beliefs as a troubling sign, but rather as a good thing. The young woman had expressed interest in becoming a nurse and registering for college. However, she met a young man and soon began discussing her desire for an Islamic education and became distant from her friends and family. She surreptitiously left for Syria in mid-2014, which came as a shock to her family.
Terrorist recruitment efforts exploit that fine line between embrace of one’s religion and extremism, preying on an individual’s developing beliefs to lure them to extremism. For example, one recruiter in Minnesota by the name of Amir Meshal would meet with young people, often in their family homes, to discuss Islam.
These seemingly benign meetings eventually evolved into secret meetings where the young men were instructed not to tell anyone about their discussions. Meshal would talk about jihad and the conversation would eventually turn to Meshal giving his new recruits instructions on traveling to Syria. Meshal was eventually identified, but not before he radicalized at least one Minneapolis resident.
Sources revealed there are many more recruiters in the community, many of whom are reported to be the same recruiters who sent young people to Somalia and are now sending young people to Syria. US Attorney Andrew Luger has concurred with the report’s findings that ISIS has appropriated the Al Shabaab recruiting network.
“This is part of why ISIS has been successful in recruiting an untold number of Somali-Americans (well-above 10 people since 2014),” Hienz said. “ISIL has no Somali-nationalistic message, but ISIS does have Somali foreign fighters. These people are the mysterious link that can make a group like ISIS attractive to a small number of Somali-Americans.”
Urgent need for solutions
There have been a number of programs and initiatives to curb ISIS recruitment in Minnesota, including the Obama administration’s “Strategic Implementation Plan (SIP) for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States,” as well as a number of independent, grassroots countering violent extremism(CVE) efforts.
Although these efforts have had some success in helping the Somali community curb ISIS recruitment, current programs are insufficient to stem the flow of fighters to ISIS.
According to the report, “There are several programs in the Twin Cities that are positively influencing the lives of young people. At the same time, there are numerous organizations that secure government funding but do not achieve any measurable impact on the threat from terrorist recruiters, nor do they reduce community crime and related concerns.”
Many organizations are rivals competing for government funding. In addition, some organizations are adept at securing funding that is not ultimately used for the intended recipients of the aid. This sentiment was mentioned 72 times during the report’s authors’ interviews with community members and law enforcement.
“Our real problems are community development. We have so many different organizations claiming that they help our youth, but…they don’t help us,” Mubashir Jeilani, co-founder of Cedar Riverside Youth Council, told the Twin Cities Daily Planet.
“There are a lot of community organizations who get money in the name of the community and never come back … So-called Somali community leaders have been receiving money from the city or the state or local but the community never benefit,” a Somali law enforcement officer said. “They benefit only that little group. And the community is pissed off.”
In response, the report recommended a smarter, more strategic use of funding. Rather than increasing funds, current aid should be “spent on real, immediate efforts and not used as a way to increase personal income and prestige.”
Many of the sources cited in the report stressed the need for more community engagement in curbing extremism, particularly the involvement of schools and teachers in parental and youth education and afterschool programs.
With the increasing possibility that recruits will return to the US from Syria to conduct an attack on the homeland, improving CVE efforts in the Minneapolis-St. Paul community is an urgent need. However, many government agencies are not taking the threat seriously, according to the report.
“After speaking with colleagues in several three-letter agencies, it is clear that while there are some professionals who understand just how dangerous ISIS is, there are many who do not,” Hienz said. “Some of the questions being asked behind government doors are laughable for their simplicity. There is a distinct absence of a sense of urgency. And the Administration’s overall strategy to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS’ needs a lot more meat on its bones.”
“What is it going to take for us to get serious about defeating ISIL?” Hienz said.