MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – More men and boys from a Somali American community in Minneapolis have joined – or attempted to join – a foreign terrorist organization over the last 12 years than any other jurisdiction in the country.
FBI stats show 45 Somalis left to join the ranks of either the Somalia-based Islamic insurgency al-Shabab, or the Iraq- and Syria-based ISIS combined. And as of 2018, a dozen more had been arrested with the intention of leaving to support ISIS. Both numbers are far higher than those of alleged terrorist wannabes who left or attempted to leave the country from other areas in the country where Muslim refugees have been resettled.
In the case of the Somalis, it's no longer just the men. Early last year, a female was apprehended by authorities on charges of supporting providing material support to Al Qaeda and arson.
So what has made the area such a hotbed for such activity? And what has been Rep. Ilhan Omar's record in addressing the issue - either before she was elected, or since?
The answers matter because federal authorities say they remain "highly concerned" about the terrorist connection with the Minneapolis Somalis - even though al-Shabab is struggling against the Somali government, and the so-called ISIS “caliphate” has crumbled under a sustained U.S.-led military campaign.
“We are very conscious that there may still be fertile ground for that, and that is could re-start at any time," one federal official told Fox News. "Based on historical experience, we had (an uptick) in 2007 and 2008 going for al-Shabab, then a lull. Then, as ISIS came back, we saw a whole bunch of people no longer headed for Somalia. They were headed for Iraq and Syria. That really caught us off-guard, we didn’t see that coming. It didn’t make sense to us. We understood why kids were going back to Somalia, but going to Syria was another we issue.”
With by far the largest Somali American population in the United States - estimates of up to 100,000 - the insular ethnic community in Minnesota offers a rich recruiting ground. Investigators told Fox News that early on, al-Shabab recruiting was almost exclusively word-of-mouth. One family connection to a contact in the terrorist group would be pulled in as a recruit, in a process that was repeated as the ranks of the al-Shabab grew.
Hundreds of newly trained al-Shabab fighters perform military exercises in the Lafofe area south of Mogadishu, in Somalia. (The Associated Press)
But that chain seemingly changed when ISIS came on the scene around 2014. Personal connections still played a part, but it became much more about digesting online recruitment videos and turning to “alternative news sources,” which played into violence being committed against Muslims around the world.
“Recruitment takes place online as well as face-to-face radicalization, sometimes with promises of what appears to be legitimate opportunities. For al-Shabab, they focus mainly on the negative impact of US counterterrorism policies – like targeted assassinations and drone strikes that sometimes kill innocent civilians in Somalia – to attract recruits and sympathizers,” explained David Otto, director and counterterrorism program coordinator at Global Risk International. “They blame the failures of government on foreign intervention and link it to the reason why most Somalians have escaped home. The promise that al-Shabaab will restore a Sharia state and get rid of the government is somewhat attractive.”
The first tide of jihadists left in 2007, under the banner of joining al-Shabab after neighboring Ethiopia invaded Somalia a year earlier, citing its own need to face the direct threat encroaching their borders from within that unstable country.