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Grass-roots effort to combat domestic terror recruitment

Street art depicting Somali-Americans in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul urban area. (Credit: Clint McMahon)

By Matthew Nieminski, special to Humanosphere

Shakib Farah left Galka’ayo, Somalia, in the early 1990s, seeking refuge from the civil war, poverty, instability, violence and chaos that plagued his country. He made a good life among the numerous Somali immigrants living in the United States and found a job working in a restaurant, he told an interviewer. Farah is now the head chef at his own Somali restaurant and a pillar of the Somali-American community. However younger and second-generation immigrants are struggling to find employment, fulfillment and similar economic and social success.

U.S. intelligence officials estimate that about a dozen men from Minnesota have joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq – and at least two have been killed. A congressional report found that of the more than 250 Americans who have attempted to join the Islamic State, 65 are from Minnesota. Of those, 24 refugees or children of refugees have tried to join extremist groups. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, a U.K.-based research group, estimates that approximately 100 people from across the U.S. have joined the Islamic State, reaching the war zone in Iraq and Syria. The same report estimates at least 750 fighters have joined the Islamic State from the United Kingdom.

The need to understand the threats from homegrown terrorists in Western cities has drawn greater urgency after the attacks in Brussels and Paris.

In an effort to stop the radicalization, the U.S. has launched a pilot project to address the root problems. Six Minnesota-based organizations that work closely with Somali-Americans have been awarded $300,000 in federal grant money as part of the Building Community Resilience initiative. The program hopes to combat terrorism and extremist ideology on a grassroots level by using local, nonprofit organizations to empower the community. Similar projects have been launched in Boston and Los Angeles.

Underlying the spread of extremist ideology and fundamentalist activity is poverty. The unemployment rate in the greater Minneapolis area, which has the largest Somali population in the United States, is 21 percent, three times the Minnesota state average. By comparison, the unemployment rate in Dearborn, Mich., an area well-populated by Muslim immigrants and Iraqi refugees is 3.9 percent.

For years, scholars, think tanks and nonprofit organizations have argued that poverty and economic underdevelopment are among the root causes of terrorism. In some intelligence circles, poverty, economic and social inequality, unemployment, poor economic growth and malnutrition serve as predictors of possible terrorist or extremist activity.

“Poverty feeds terrorism by eroding a basic human need: the need to belong. This may seem like an unlikely place to begin a conversation on terrorism, but after growing up in one of Africa’s largest urban slums for most of my life, I am certain that nurturing a sense of belonging in young people through economic opportunity and the cultivation of community is essential for curbing the spread of terrorism,” said grassroots activist and community organizer Kennedy Odede to the Daily Mail.

He argues that youth need to be engaged, fulfilled or driven by a sense of purpose, serving a mission greater than themselves. When these necessities cannot be filled by education or a meaningful and sustainable career, extremist ideology attempts to fill the void.

In Minnesota, the pilot project aims to fill that void. The grant recipients are all community-based programs. The groups include a youth sports and athletic group, a program designed to strengthen and educate Somali parents, an organization that hopes to strengthen youth employment and economic opportunities, and an organization that addresses mental health issues for refugees. The programs are designed to be self-sustaining, allowing for continued and long-term efforts.

Youthprise is the nonprofit organization administering the funds in Minnesota. In a statement Marcus Pope, director of partnerships and external relations for the organization, acknowledges the “formidable challenges” and “sense of alienation” that is haunting Somali immigrant youth. It is this sense of isolation combined with “unemployment and poverty that can open them to recruitment by extremist groups.”

Minnesota state lawmakers have also allocated an additional $250,000 that will be distributed to programs specifically targeting and countering terror recruitment efforts. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety will soon be awarding grants designed to stimulate long-term economic investment in the Somali-American community and help at-risk youth.

While hardly the only immigrant group to be isolated by race, culture and language, Somali-Americans are particularly at risk of being recruited by extremist groups. The extremist group al-Shabab laid the foundation for Somali-American recruitment. The Somali-based extremist group began targeting immigrant youth, encouraging Somalis living in the United States to return to their homeland and join al-Shabab. Al-Shabab, whose literal translation means “the youth,” created a logistical and financial support pipeline to facilitate their travel and expenses and this network is now being exploited by recruiters working for the Islamic State.

Bob Fletcher, former Ramsey County sheriff and current executive director of the Center for Somalia History Studies, is optimistic about the new programs.

“Success is the best vaccination against terrorism and extremist recruitment. If Somali-Americans feel economically secure and optimistic that they can succeed in the United States, they are less likely to engage in extremist activity. Somali youth need to feel accepted and a part of American society. Parents and children can be engaged in education, sports, and other civic groups,” he said in an interview.

Fletcher’s optimism is rooted experience, as he cited the success of similar programs in the past, “a similar initiative in the 1990s helped deter the Hmong community from engaging in gang activity. Programs targeting Somali-American youth can be equally as successful, especially those that engage the community on a local, social, and economic level.”

MAGG PictureMatthew Nieminski is an intelligence analyst specializing in conflict and terrorism for a private intelligence company. @MattNieminski


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