MINNEAPOLIS – When young men from Minneapolis began traveling to Somalia seven years ago to join a terror group in the midst of a civil war, investigators trying to stop the recruiting went straight to the city's large Somali community to build trust and gain understanding.
The nationwide effort to stop a new wave of Westerners being recruited, this time for Islamic State militant groups in Syria and Iraq, could take some cues from Minnesota. Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday the Justice Department is launching a series of pilot programs to help detect American extremists looking to join terror organizations in countries like Syria and Iraq.
Locations for the programs weren't announced and few details were released, but Holder said they would bring together religious leaders, prosecutors and community representatives. Such a program would be welcomed in Minnesota — where authorities also are now investigating how a handful of people were recruited to travel to Syria and take up arms with militants. Several Somalis have been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury — some back in June and others as recently as last week.
"It looks like the community is under siege and kids are being recruited day and night, and something has to be done immediately to stop this," said Omar Jamal, director of American Friends of Somalia. "They have to act very quickly ... I'm afraid it's going to be too little, too late."
Authorities have confirmed that at least one Minnesota man has died while fighting for the Islamic State, and some families fear their daughters have also gone overseas to take up the cause.
Officials in Minneapolis began reaching out to at-risk communities years ago, after some local Somalis began traveling to their homeland to join the terror group al-Shabab, which is linked to al-Qaida. Since 2007, more than 22 young Somalis went from Minnesota to Somalia to fight.
Ralph Boelter, head of the Minneapolis FBI office when the travels to Somalia first came to light, said his efforts included lunches with community members, appearances on Somali television and radio programs, and making sure his office was engaged with groups from elders to youth.
The departures of young men to Somalia seemed to slow, though al-Shabab's fading power in Somalia along with several high-profile prosecutions — most on charges of providing material support for terrorism — may have dissuaded some.
But Boelter said he thought the outreach made people more comfortable providing information.
"Things like, people who were going to travel — it certainly increased the opportunity or chance that we would learn about that before it happened," he said. "It gave us a lot more insight into what was happening, what people were talking about, what people were thinking about."
Gregory Boosalis, an FBI spokesman in Minneapolis, said that since 2012 the FBI has made about 50 presentations on the dangers of al-Shabab and terror recruiting. In late 2013, when authorities learned of the possibility that some people were traveling to Syria, the FBI intensified its efforts — educating police, handing out cards for people with anonymous tips, and engaging with mosques.
Boosalis said outreach efforts were reflected in early June, when a suburban Minneapolis mosque called police after a teacher reported that a man had been expressing radical ideas to young people. Leaders of Al Farooq Youth and Family Center in Bloomington barred the man from the premises and police referred the case to the FBI.
Efforts to raise awareness about extremism also may be sinking in with average community members.
One Somali woman, Saredo Kulane, told The Associated Press last week she thinks someone brainwashed a neighbor who's thought to have traveled to Syria. She said she believes there are recruiters targeting youth, and if she sees something, she will speak up.
"I will call the government and tell them," she said through an interpreter. "I will never let them go, because they are killing our children."
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