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Rising deportations to Somalia raise concerns in Minnesota

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Surge in asylum rejections, removals to terror-stricken nation spark worry.

Mila Koumpilova

The pace of deportations to Somalia is picking up fast — and setting local natives of the East African country on edge.

Eight months into the fiscal year, deportations to Somalia have already outpaced last year’s record-setting numbers. Nationally, more than 260 people were deported to Somalia since October — mostly Somalis who sought asylum unsuccessfully, but also some permanent U.S. residents with criminal convictions.

Alarmed community members grilled the Somali ambassador on a recent visit to the Twin Cities. Minnesota’s DFL congressional delegation in May wrote the Trump administration questioning the removals to a country grappling with famine and threats by the terror group Al-Shabab.

“These realities cause great concern for the decision to deport so many Somalis to a situation where they would face imminent risk and danger,” the letter said.

But some administration supporters have lauded its effort to pressure Somalia and other “recalcitrant” countries to accept more deportees. At the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates limiting immigration, fellow Jessica Vaughan says the U.S. must put its citizens’ safety first. Otherwise, she says, “We are stuck with people who are no longer eligible to remain in this country because conditions in their own countries remain poor.”

Somali deportations began increasing under President Barack Obama, and they have kept up as President Donald Trump took office with promises to step up immigration enforcement. Improved cooperation by Somalia appears to be a key factor. The country was on the Obama administration’s list of nations that didn’t play ball with U.S. immigration authorities, but it vanished from the new administration’s list released in May.

From 30 to 260 in five years

The 260 people deported to Somalia through May 6 compare to 198 for the entire 2016 fiscal year and about 30 five years ago, when the U.S. government began to more readily repatriate Somalis to the war-torn country. The 2017 number includes 80 people deported through the St. Paul office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which also covers the Dakotas, Nebraska and Iowa.

Both nationally and locally, about a quarter of deportees had criminal convictions, according to data from ICE. More than 4,830 Somalis in the United States have pending final orders of deportation, including about 300 in the states covered by the St. Paul ICE office.

Kamal Hassan, founder of the Somali Human Rights Commission, has a nephew who was deported earlier this month.

The Embassy of Somalia in Washington, D.C., which reopened in 2015, has demanded letters from deportees saying they agree to go back before its staff will issue travel documents. Its home page features a release about the 90 people deported on a January chartered flight; it says they signed statements that affirm “their full consent to be returned to Somalia.”

Attorneys and community leaders say some Somalis with legal troubles have signed the statements in hopes of getting a fresh start in Africa. Others face lengthy stays in immigration detention in the U.S. Late last year, a Somali man called attorney Marc Prokosch after six months in detention to ask, “What can I do to have them just send me back?”

But last month, a Somali man was deported after refusing to sign, says his attorney, Bruce Nestor. In court documents challenging the man’s detention, Nestor argued that the U.S. government was pressuring his client into making a false statement.

The Somali embassy did not respond to requests for an interview. But community members who attended a recent meeting with Ambassador Ahmed Isse Awad said he argued that Somalia has an obligation to take its citizens back — at least those who go willingly.

“People were very mad, and they were asking him harsh questions,” said Amiin Harun, a Somali-American lawyer. “He said, ‘We are not forcing anybody to be sent back.’ ”

Kamal Hassan, founder of the nonprofit Somali Human Rights Commission, pleaded with the ambassador not to issue travel documents for his nephew and others facing deportation. Hassan says the young man traveled to South America and crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally after the murder of his father, a leader in Somalia’s Sufi religious minority targeted by Al-Shabab. After a lengthy detention, his asylum application and an appeal were rejected.

“You know Somalia is not safe,” Hassan says he told the ambassador. “Why are you lying that it is safe and sending people in harm’s way?”

Hassan said his nephew has been deported, without signing a statement agreeing to go.

ICE referred all questions about the embassy’s practices to the ambassador.

More fleeing to Canada

Attorneys such as Harun are fielding more questions about the deportations, even from green card holders and citizens. The increase in removals, among other factors, has spurred a rise in illegal crossings into Canada by Somali asylum seekers.

Prokosch says he doesn’t advise his clients to sneak into Canada — but, he says, “In certain circumstances I would probably say, ‘Staying isn’t going to help you,’ and let them read between the lines.”

In their letter to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, all Democratic U.S. senators and representatives from Minnesota said the deportations could undermine the Somali community’s efforts to counter radical recruitment by feeding an Al-Shabab narrative that “Somalis are unwelcome and unwanted in America.”

Making good on promise

Getting foreign countries to cooperate on deportations was a key campaign pledge for Trump, who lambasted Obama for letting countries block removals. A Supreme Court decision required the release of most immigrants from immigration detention after 180 days if they are unlikely to be deported soon, and some with criminal records have gone on to commit more crimes. In 2011, a Somali national from Eagan, released after serving a sentence for a stabbing, shot and killed four people in North Dakota.

Since taking over, the Trump administration has run into the complexities of forcing countries to take deportees; news reports show that criminals whose home countries won’t accept them continue to be released. But, says Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, the administration’s willingness to impose visa sanctions on uncooperative countries is having an effect.

“Countries don’t want to put foreign aid and the ability of their citizens to travel to the U.S. at risk,” she said.

Iraq’s promise to start cooperating on deportees was a key reason that country stayed off Trump’s revised executive order pausing travel from some Muslim-majority countries, senior administration officials said. Whether the other six countries, including Somalia, remain on a list for “extreme vetting” will depend on their willingness to accept their deportees, officials said.

Meanwhile, Minnesota state Rep. Ilhan Omar recently launched an online petition urging Trump to hold off on deportations as Somalia struggles with drought and famine. Omar Jamal, a community leader, points to the killing last month of a U.S. Navy SEAL in Somalia as evidence the country remains caught up in violence.

“If someone breaks the laws of this country … so be it,” he said. “But we hope they will look at the bigger picture.”

Some are concerned about young people who came to the U.S. as children of refugees — and have little clue how to navigate their parents’ homeland.

“You’re just setting them up to go to a different world they don’t belong to,” said Mohamud Noor of the nonprofit Confederation of Somali Community, who gave character references for several men fighting their deportations.

Canada

Canada’s immigration minister warns against illegal crossings at Minnesota’s northern border

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Canada’s immigration minister, Ahmed Hussen, arrived in Minnesota just days after the U.S. Supreme Court let stand for now new travel restrictions for eight countries, including Somalia — the land a teenage Hussen fled with his family.

But even as he has come to symbolize for some the divergent immigration philosophies on either side of the U.S.-Canada border, Hussen shuns criticism of the Trump administration’s approach. In fact, he was in the Twin Cities this week in part to discourage a spike in asylum-seekers crossing into Canada this year that has tested the country’s famously welcoming attitude.

“We are huge fans of immigration, but we want people to immigrate through the regular channels,” he said.

In a speech at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Hussen touted Canada’s measured approach, including a gradual increase in immigration planned over the next three years.

He met with resettlement agency staff and other advocates, plugging a unique Canadian program in which private citizens and churches sponsor some refugees.

Members of the local Somali community, where he enjoys rock star status, threw him a welcoming reception in Minneapolis.

“He is an icon,” said Mohamed Ahmed, a local community leader and Bush Foundation fellow. “People see him as an example of what is possible in the West.”

The first Somali-Canadian elected to parliament and appointed as minister, Hussen was 16 when he arrived alone in Toronto, where older brothers had resettled earlier. He has spoken of finding a sense of belonging on his high school track team and of enduring a two-hour commute as he worked at a gas station to save money for college.

He got a law degree from the University of Ottawa and practiced criminal and immigration law. Once a receptionist in an opposition politician’s office, he was elected to parliament in 2015. In January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tapped him to lead the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.

“I am a big champion of our immigration system because I have been through it,” said Hussen, whose visit to Minneapolis was his third to the United States since becoming minister.

In the media, Hussen is often cast as an emblem of Canada’s stance against anti-immigration sentiments sweeping the United States and Europe. But he is unfailingly diplomatic about the differences between the Canadian and American approaches, saying only he has a good working relationship with counterparts on this side of the border. And, he stresses, Canada is by no means unified in support of more immigration.

A recent rise in illegal border crossings into Canada has triggered pushback from conservative politicians there and concerns from border communities such as the Manitoba city of Emerson, unsettled and overwhelmed by the arrivals. In Manitoba, many of those arrivals have been Somalis who had unsuccessfully applied for asylum in the United States. Now, Hussen and some Canadian lawmakers are reaching out to immigrant communities to highlight that border crossers undergo rigorous screening and face deportation if their asylum claims fall short.

“We don’t want people uprooting their lives based on false information,” Hussen said. “Crossing the border irregularly is not a free ticket to Canada.”

Ahmed said word in the local Somali community remains that Canada offers a much gentler welcome to those arriving at its border with asylum claims. He spoke of a friend, a permanent resident who faced deportation after a criminal conviction, who crossed into Canada this year. Though he doesn’t know yet if he will be granted asylum, the friend reports receiving subsidized housing and free legal help, Ahmed said.

To a packed auditorium at the Humphrey School, Hussen touted a plan the Canadian government released in November that will bring in almost 1 million new immigrants by 2020. About 60 percent will be employment-based immigrants, largely arriving through a merit-based system that awards points for education, language and professional skills, among other factors.

Hussen said doing immigration right requires an investment: The Canadian government is spending $1 billion this year on language classes, help with finding jobs and other integration efforts. But he said bringing in newcomers is crucial to ward off a looming labor shortage given Canada’s aging population.

“We strongly believe immigration is key to our future success in Canada,” he said.

Hussen also praised a Canadian refugee resettlement system in which, alongside the government’s program, private citizens and organizations commit to supporting refugees for a year.
The country has found these refugees do better easing into Canadian life. Hussen said the United Kingdom and several Latin American countries are modeling new programs on the Canadian approach, though he hasn’t yet fielded inquiries from the United States.

Hussen said with more refugees displaced globally than ever before in modern history, Canada plans to remain a key player in resettlement: “More people are on the move, and we can’t turn our heads away.”

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Plane carrying deportees to Somalia returns to the United States

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Mila Koumpilova

A plane with deportees to Somalia, including at least four from Minnesota, returned to the United States Friday after a stop in Senegal that immigration authorities said did not go according to plan.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement that a flight with 92 deportees headed back after a refueling and pilot exchange stop in Dakar. As the plane landed in Dakar, ICE was notified relief crew members were not able to get enough rest because of issues with their hotel, and the plane remained parked at the airport to allow the relief crew time to rest.

“Various logistical options were explored, and ultimately ICE decided to reschedule the mission to Somalia and return to the United States with all 92 detainees,” said the statement from the agency, which declined to provide further details.

Local attorneys for several of the deportees on the flight said they were baffled by the turn of events — but hopeful the flight’s return might offer some of their clients a long-shot opening to block their deportations.

The number of Somalia natives the United States deports to their homeland has increased markedly in recent years, and the Trump administration this year removed that country from a list of nations deemed uncooperative on deportations. The U.S. government has argued that conditions in the East African country have improved sufficiently to return people there. Advocates have pointed to a string of deadly terror attacks in Somalia as they insist the country remains unsafe.

John Bruning, an attorney at Kim Hunter Law in St. Paul, said his office had two clients on the flight, both of whom unsuccessfully applied for asylum in the late 1990s and early 2000s. After receiving final deportation orders, they had been checking in with ICE regularly for years until they were detained earlier this year. One of them worked as a cardiovascular technician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. In a dramatic last-minute turnaround, a federal judge blocked temporarily the deportations of three other clients who were slated to be on Thursday’s flight.

“This doesn’t add up to me,” Bruning said of ICE’s statement. “We’re still trying to wrap our minds around what is going on.”

Bruning said the two men on the flight have pending claims with the Board of Immigration Appeals though it is unlikely that decisions in those cases will come during what will probably be a short stint in the United States until another flight to Africa can be arranged. Still, he said his office is trying to find out more about the circumstances of the return to determine if it might offer any chance to make a fresh case on their behalf.

Habon Osman, whose husband Cabduqaadir Mayow was on the plane, said she hoped the plane’s return might give him another chance. The couple is legally married, but her husband was arrested days before their religious ceremony. “It’s the worst story of my life,” she said. “I have a little bit of hope he came back, but you never know.”

Linus Chan at the University of Minnesota’s Center for New Americans, which is representing another deportee on the flight, said he is also exploring whether the plane’s return might provide an opening for his client. He said he was encouraged by the outcome in federal court for Bruning’s three clients.

He said the flight’s return seems like an ordeal for those on board, though he noted ICE might not be at fault for the issues in Dakar. The agency said the air conditioning remained on throughout the stay in Dakar, and the plane was stocked with enough food and water.

“You’ve been sitting in detention for months,” he said. “You’re on a plane to Somalia, and the next thing you know you are heading back to the US. That’s got to be terrible.”

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As life’s pressures mounted, he left Minnesota for ISIS

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Mukhtar M. Ibrahim

Abdifatah Ahmed’s life in Minneapolis seemed carefree — a clean-shaven family man obsessed with selfies, shooting hoops at a local basketball court and pumping iron at an Uptown gym.

Below the surface, though, Ahmed, faced a well of problems, and by late 2013, they were closing in.

Earlier, he had called an ex-spouse “in tears” because an ex-wife from another state was seeking to collect child support, which may have sent Ahmed, then 33, into a tailspin.

By November 2013, he’d flown to London to meet up with friends and shake off the pressure. It seemed to work. Later in the month, while still in London, he’d called a loved one to say he wanted to return to Minneapolis, but first had to change his ticket.

But Ahmed, also known as Abdirahmaan Muhumed, never returned. Instead, he would turn up months later in Syria where he became the first Minnesotan to fight for ISIS, and one of the first to die.

Court documents reviewed by MPR News paint a complex picture of Ahmed’s life and sudden change, although they don’t explain exactly how he went from a regular guy feeling life’s strains to someone ready to join one of the deadliest terrorist groups in modern history. Something happened during that trip to London.

The documents also reveal that one of the first people Ahmed called and communicated with online frequently after he disappeared, and even while Ahmed was still in Syria, was his longtime female friend who was also an FBI informant. It’s the first time a woman has turned up in the ISIS cases as an informant.

‘I will die here’

 

Abdifatah Ahmed, who joined ISIS in late 2013, holds a black flag used by ISIS. The flag has the “shahada,” or the testimony of faith that reads: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.” Facebook

Friends say Ahmed was depressed and financially strapped, but that he was no religious fanatic. In London, Ahmed started “relaxing and chewing khat,” a leafy green plant containing some stimulant drugs, according to the informant.

Ahmed’s friend, the informant who was not named in court documents but referred to as J.A.M., said it came to her as a shock how quickly Ahmed had altered his life trajectory.

She described her friend as “non-religious” and believed that Ahmed was “brain-washed” because he had not discussed jihad, terrorism or Syria, according to a court document.

But in private messages on Facebook and on the messaging app Viber in the spring of 2014, when he was with ISIS, Ahmed began talking to the informant about jihad and Syria, telling her, “I will die here.”

“Islam is not just praying u know,” Ahmed told her. “Some one who get kill for the sakeof allah can ask allah to for give[sic] up to 70 of his family.”

Ahmed reminded his friend to read the Quran.

“I will fight until there is no pain in the Muslim lands,” Ahmed told the informant. “If I don’t respond to u over a month that means am not here any more[sic] so forgive me for anything.”

MPR News had communicated with Ahmed in mid-2014 through a series of private messages on Facebook. At the time, he told a reporter: “Family is not gonna save me frm [sic] hell fire because muslims are getting kill[ed] and if i just sit here i will be ask in the [hereafter].”

Also that summer, an FBI spokesperson in Minneapolis told MPR News that Ahmed was among more than a dozen Minnesota men who had enlisted to fight with radical groups in Syria. It was the first time federal authorities in Minneapolis had indicated the scope of the problem.

Months later, the FBI would arrest nine men as part of an investigation into a plot to travel to Syria to join ISIS. In this case, a second FBI informant who was part of the conspiracy played a crucial role in helping the government crack the case by secretly recording his friends’ conversations.

That informant, Abdirahman Bashir, had previously lied to the FBI and to a federal grand jury about his involvement in the conspiracy.

Bashir’s audio recordings of his friends openly talking about their desire to travel to Syria was among the most damaging evidence presented at the trial of three Somali-American men in May. The recordings provided a “fly-on-the-wall view of” the men’s conspiracy, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty said at the trial.

The FBI won’t comment on when Ahmed’s friend started working for the agency, how much she was paid and what evidence she was tasked to gather for the government.

Her profile is starkly different from that of Bashir, who started working for the FBI at the height of the FBI’s investigation into the ISIS cases in February 2015 and was paid more than $100,000 for aiding federal authorities.

‘Turn off your location’

Bashir and Ahmed share a mutual friend named Douglas McCain, a Muslim convert who also joined ISIS in early 2014.

McCain was also friends with two of Bashir’s cousins, the Karie brothers: Hamse and Hersi, who also joined ISIS in 2013 and had attended school with McCain in Minnesota.

McCain exchanged phone numbers, emails and private messages with Ahmed just days before McCain traveled to Syria. He had been living in San Diego at the time.

McCain told Ahmed via Facebook Messenger in March 2014: “In sha Allah” — God willing — “I need to hala at u I am flying to Turkey.”

“dont talk like that on here cuz,” Ahmed replied, probably unaware that one day his messages will end up in court documents. “turn your location off,” he told McCain.

A week later, McCain and another young man named Hanad Mohallim left the country on the same day. They both used the same credit card to purchase their plane tickets for about $1,000 each.

In a sign of how deeply intertwined the relationships were, Bashir, the informant, Mohallim and the Karie brothers are all first cousins.

During his testimony at the trial in 2016, Bashir said Mohallim “was like my brother.”

On the morning of his departure, Mohallim told his family he had a job interview and then would head to the gym.

Around midnight when he did not return home, his mother began to worry. She confronted informant Bashir and his younger brother who refused to tell their aunt where her son had gone. She then called the FBI.

She believed the Karie brothers may have influenced her son when he visited them in Canada in 2013. After he returned from Canada, Mohallim became “more religious,” his mother told the FBI.

On that morning in March 2014, after praying at a local mosque, informant Bashir dropped Mohallim off at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. He told the court he knew where his cousin was going, but he kept it to himself.

Before he said goodbye to his cousin, Bashir told Mohallim: “If you go over there and you think it’s true jihad, then I’m going to come later on.”

He never did. Instead, he flipped in 2015 to become an FBI informant.

His cousin Mohallim, meanwhile, became a source of fascination for the rest of the men he left behind in the Twin Cities. They talked about him in group meetings and started looking for photos of Mohallim on social media.

Eventually, they found out he was killed in an airstrike in 2014, a few months after he joined ISIS.

Waving the black flag

This web of connections illustrate how the first ISIS recruits from Minnesota had inspired the nine men who all ended up getting arrested while attempting to leave the country.

The FBI had sought search warrants for the social media accounts of these men to reveal links between them and to uncover new cases of individuals who aspire to join ISIS.

As these Twin Cities men were trying to find the best routes they could take from Minnesota to Syria to best elude law enforcement, Ahmed was posting on Facebook startling photos from the ISIS frontlines.

Gone were the selfies of the smiling man in Minnesota showing off his biceps. In were the photos of Ahmed in Syria holding rifles and waving the black flag associated with ISIS.

Ahmed’s last post on his Facebook page, on July 25, 2014, was a recruitment video calling on his fellow Somalis to join the jihad in Syria.

“The caliphate was born,” he said, proudly holding the ISIS flag in a dimly lit video. “And Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the commander of the believers.”

In June 2014, MPR News asked Ahmed if he had missed anything from Minnesota.

“My kids and my family,” he said, adding that he now lives a better life and has better friends.

He said his goal was “to bring the muslims safering to un end.”

Then, as if Minnesota and the unhappy life he had left behind were in his thoughts, Ahmed wrote: “I swear by Allah I live un stress life.”

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