From Minneapolis to ISIS

Yesterday’s New York Times featured Scott Shane’s long page-one article “From Minneapolis to ISIS: An American’s path to jihad.” Shane explores the departure of Abdi Nur from Minneapolis to join ISIS in Syria. Nur comes from the Twin Cities’ large and still growing Somali community. Shane wanders off to discuss the cases of others who have left the United States to sign on with ISIS. Here is the local angle: “The only cluster in the country is Minneapolis, where two dozen young men with Somali roots departed in recent years to fight with the Shabab, the affiliate of al Qaeda in Somalia.”

“Somali elders” make their obligatory appearance. Left unnamed and unidentified, they’re in “distress” that “more than a dozen others have left or have tried to leave to join ISIS.”

Shane gingerly notes the common denominator among the ISIS recruits in his story: “Most of the American recruits ISIS volunteers display an earnest religious zeal, usually newfound.” In another of the amazing coincidences that constrain coverage of this story, the religion is, of course, without exception, Islam. Not that there’s anything Islamic about the Islamic State.

In Nur’s case, enthusiasm for signing on to ISIS coincides with his attendance at the Al Farooq Youth and Family Center (mosque) in Bloomington, within shouting distance of the Mall of America. Nur bought his Nike apparel at the Mall’s Macy’s store before taking off for Syria.

Shane implies that Al Farooq’s involvement in Nur’s departure is limited to the alleged facilitation of Amir Meshal, a 31-year-old mosque volunteer. Meshal denies it.

Shane notes that Nur’s family has clammed up. They were unwilling to talk to him. Shane offers this exculpation: “Mr. Nur’s immigrant parents most likely did not see that by late March last year he was posting a quote from Anwar al-Awlaki, the late American recruiter for al-Qaeda: ‘We are fighting for truth and justice and you (americans/westerners) are fighting for oppression and worldly gain.'”

Last year, however, a local report quoted Nur’s sister Ifrah: “[W]hen he started to attend Islamic classes at [Al-Farooq Youth & Family Center in Bloomington] two months ago, he changed. He grew very quiet. He stopped talking to people, even if you’re sitting next to him. All this time, he was up to something that we weren’t aware of.”

Having recently attended a law enforcement presentation on relations with the Somali community, I will add that I believe the Al Farooq mosque remains of concern beyond Amir Meshal. It is not apparent to me that Shane talked with anyone working in local, state or federal law enforcement in Minnesota. The Minneapolis office of the FBI is obviously devoting substantial resources to the subject of Shane’s story.

Nur made it to Syria. He was traveling from Minneapolis with Abdullah Yusuf, another Somali member of the Al Farooq mosque. Yusuf was apprehended at the airport and has now pleaded guilty to providing material support for terrorism. Those of us living in the Twin Cities are left with this:

[I]n an experiment being watched nationally, Judge Michael J. Davis of Federal District Court agreed to a presentence plan to divert Mr. Yusuf to a halfway house with the support of Heartland Democracy, an education nonprofit in Minneapolis. He worked at Best Buy and attended community college until late November, when he was jailed for a time in connection with his attempt to travel to Syria. His supporters are now working with the court to get him back in classes and eventually back in a job.

The idea, said Mary McKinley, executive director of Heartland Democracy, is to gradually reintegrate Mr. Yusuf into the community, and possibly give him a role in countering the radicalization of young people.

“Ideally, Abdullahi will be able to tell his story in a way that is useful to young people who are frustrated and disengaged,” Ms. McKinley said. His lawyer, Jean M. Brandl, said her client was not prepared to speak publicly.

Federal prosecutors opposed giving Mr. Yusuf a break, noting that he had lied to F.B.I. agents at the airport. But Judge Davis, who knows the Somali community well enough to ask about clans and sub-clans, went along with the plan, intended to reduce the chasm between Somalis and law enforcement officials. Parents and friends concerned about a young person drawn to the Islamic State are more likely to call the police, advocates say, if they believe there is an alternative to a long prison sentence.

Yusuf’s “supporters” and “advociates” (as Shane refers to them) might be thought to be part of the problem rather than the solution. In the meantime, those of us living in the Twin Cities are left to hope that the “experiment” doesn’t get us killed.

FOOTNOTE: I would like to add that, based on my own personal knowledge and professional experience, I have the greatest respect for Judge Davis. His knowledge of the local Somali community derives in part from his presiding at the trial of the two Rochester-based Somali women who were convicted of providing material support to al Shabab in 2011.

I wrote about Judge Davis in “Judge Davis and the Muslim-American muddle.” I also wrote briefly about the ongoing FBI investigation of the Somali connection in “At ground zero in Minnesota.”

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