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Thursday, February 29, 2024

New anti-terrorism program set for Twin Cities

Minneapolis police officer Mike Kirchen talks with Mohamed Salat, left, and Abdi Ali at a community center where members of the Somali community gather in Minneapolis.  (AP Photo/The Star Tribune, Jim Gehrz, File)
Minneapolis police officer Mike Kirchen talks with Mohamed Salat, left, and Abdi Ali at a community center where members of the Somali community gather in Minneapolis.
(AP Photo/The Star Tribune, Jim Gehrz, File)

The cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul will participate in a Department of Justice pilot program designed to engage at-risk communities and stop extremists from recruiting Americans to join terror organizations overseas, U.S. Attorney Andy Luger said Tuesday.

Luger, who announced the Twin Cities’ participation in an interview with The Associated Press, said the program will bring more national expertise and resources to address terror recruiting in Minnesota to “build what we hope will be a model for the rest of the country.”

The goals, he said, are to engage the community and build trust to put a stop to recruiting. Two other cities will also participate in the pilots, announced a day earlier by Attorney General Eric Holder. Those cities have not been publicly named.

Authorities in Minnesota are investigating how a handful of people were recruited to travel to Syria and take up arms with militants. At least one Minnesota man has died, and some families fear their daughters have also gone overseas to take up the cause. Several Somalis have been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury — some as recently as last week.

Luger said it would be hard to quantify whether Minnesota is seeing more recruiting than other areas, but he said the state’s large Somali population is a natural target for recruiters.

“The Somali community here deserves to live in peace and security and what is happening with a small number of people within their community is disturbing to them,” he said. “So we in the federal government owe it to our community leaders, our religious leaders, to make every effort to help them combat this.”

The pilot program — which brings together prosecutors, religious leaders, local law enforcement and community representatives — is a natural for Minnesota, which has already been held up as an international example for its efforts in reaching out to at-risk communities. Outreach efforts have been a focus for law enforcement since more than 22 men began traveling to Somalia to join the terror group al-Shabab years ago.

Luger has already participated in regular dinners with imams, one-on-one meetings with community leaders and quarterly discussions with security officials. He said the pilot brings several new elements to the table.

Among them, his office now has access to national and international experts on radicalism and recruiting, and can use them to help community members put together public service announcements or other messages — perhaps with the help of the music industry or Hollywood — to counter extremist views that kids may see on social media.

He said his office is also bringing in resources from social services agencies, school systems and mental health experts, so a family with a child at risk of recruitment knows where to go for help.

In addition, he said, all three pilot cities are being asked to tell senior officials in Washington what resources they need. Luger said his office is working on proposals, and will have talks with those officials in October. He didn’t get into details, but said his office is looking at resources relating to community engagement.

Mohamed Farah, executive director of Ka Joog youth group, said he’s happy Minnesota is involved, but he would like more details and he hopes the effort isn’t strictly focused on beefing up law enforcement.

“Really, we haven’t talked about the real issues that cause this extremism, and I hope that is the route that we are taking — and it sounds like Andrew wants to have that discussion,” Farah said.

Luger said as a federal prosecutor, he’s always concerned about disenfranchised youth who turn to lives of violence.

“With respect to this community, there’s an additional risk and threat, and that is to be recruited into a life of terrorism,” he said. “And we want that to stop.”


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