Somali Community Anticipates FBI Anti-Radicalization Program

In the last year, more than a dozen Somali-Minnesotans have left the country to join radical groups in Syria, according to the FBI. That’s a miniscule fraction of the state’s Somali population, but the federal government is still taking notice.

US Attorney Andy Luger will soon launch a federally funded pilot program in the Twin Cities. The aim is to prevent radicalization among Somali youth.

Luger hasn’t revealed the details of the pilot, but he is adamant that the program won’t include any surveillance or intelligence collection.

His office says that the pilot will provide funding for programs like youth extracurricular activities, mentorships, and scholarships for Somali-Americans.

That may seem like pretty innocuous stuff. But some Somali-Americans and civil liberties advocates say the program could have more pernicious effects.

Last Friday, a crowd of community members gathered in a banquet hall at the Safari Somali restaurant in South Minneapolis.

Unknown speaker: [Somali]. I want to welcome all of you here tonight. We thank god, we thank Allah who made it possible that we are all here tonight.

They were there to hear a panel of national civil liberties and law enforcement experts talk about the pitfalls of anti-radicalization programs. The event was hosted by the Minnesota branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Most of the attendees were there to learn. Many people knew nothing about the pilot program. Others were ambivalent about it—they were optimistic at the prospect of new funding. But they were also concerned that by targeting the Somali community, the program could foster prejudice against immigrants.

Dylan Peers McCoy:  Michael German, one of the panelists, said that their fear is justified. German is a former FBI agent who’s now a fellow at Brennan Center for Justice and a civil liberties advocate.

Micheal German: If the government makes the outreach program only about terrorism and only about one community, that actually creates a stigma.

McCoy:  German said that the stigma created by programs that focus exclusively on preventing radicalization among Somali-Minnesotans reinforces the premise that terrorism and Islam are linked. When in fact, attacks in the US are far more likely to be perpetrated by far right extremists. 

A young Somali-American attorney is particularly concerned about the impact that the pilot could have on community programs that receive funding.

Aman Obsiye: My name is Aman Obsiye. I’m worried that maybe the government says, ‘hey we’ll cut you a check, but in return we need you to do x, y, and x on our behalf.’ Are community organizations going to be coerced to engage in intelligence gathering to receive this funding?

McCoy:  For the most part, however, critics didn’t focus on the pilot program that the US Attorney’s office is implementing. The panel spent almost no time discussing it, because details haven’t been released. Instead, the event revealed the deep mistrust between some members of the Somali community and federal intelligence agencies.

Jaylani Hussein is the Executive Director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Hussein: previous programs blurred the lines between outreach and surveillance…We have questions, and when you’re telling me a new program is not going to follow-suite with the other ones, you have to first come forward and be honest about the other things that the community is asking you about.

For KFAI, I’m Dylan Peers McCoy. 

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