Slate — We still don’t know exactly what motivated the Ohio State student who wounded 11 people with his car and a knife on Monday, before a campus police officer shot and killed him. We know that the student, Abdul Razak Ali Artan, was a Somali refugee, and that he felt Muslims were subject to unfair scrutiny in his community, and in the United States in general. We know that he posted a rant on Facebook just minutes before the attack, saying he was “willing to kill a billion infidels in retribution for a single DISABLED Muslim.”
We also know that ISIS claimed credit for the attack on Tuesday, but that doesn’t tell us much. One of the group’s shrewdest strategies has been to embrace violent acts by Muslims around the globe, whether or not it played a direct role in them. The tactic makes the group seem more potent and broad-based than it really is. President-elect Donald Trump readily accepted this claim, highlighting the ISIS link along with Artan’s Somali background in a tweet on Tuesday.
ISIS is taking credit for the terrible stabbing attack at Ohio State University by a Somali refugee who should not have been in our country.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 30, 2016
The tweet echoed Trump’s past warnings about the threat posed by Somali refugees in the United States, suggesting they will face increased scrutiny under his presidency. It’s also possible that he will follow through on his campaign proposal to ban refugees from the country, despite the ongoing violence there. Somalis in Columbus, and across the country, are on edge: Many have children and other close relatives in Somalia, or in Kenyan refugee camps, who are in the midst of the already arduous application process for a family reunification visa.
To blame Somalis and ISIS for acts of violence like Artan’s, and to respond with a crackdown on the group as a whole, may strike some as an understandable reaction. But in fact, it is a misdiagnosis of the problem—and a deeply misguided solution. That’s not only because it’s unfair to blame the group for the sins of a tiny number of individuals. It’s also because it’s counterproductive and misses the point.
The time I’ve spent with Columbus’ Somali community, working on a master’s thesis about young Somalis and the threat of radicalization in 2010 and 2011, revealed that its troubles stem not from a lack of scrutiny, but a surfeit of it. Many of its members escaped the armed conflict in Somalia only to face new obstacles in the U.S. heartland: poverty, alienation, and a wholly justified sense of persecution. The reaction from Columbus Somalis in the wake of Artan’s attack was one of horror—at the act itself, but also at the likely consequences for their community. This was Somali Americans’ worst nightmare, and something that many of them have been working for years to prevent.
To be clear, Artan’s Facebook posts are scary, and his act was brutal. There’s no excusing it. And he is not the first Somali refugee in the United States to wish or inflict violence on innocent neighbors. In recent years, a handful of Somali refugees in Columbus, Minneapolis, and other cities have been linked with similar attacks, including a 22-year-old man of Somali descent who stabbed eight people in a Minnesota mall in September. ISIS claimed responsibility in that case, as well. There have also been multiple reports by the FBI of foiled plots involving Somali Americans in recent years, although it’s unclear in many cases to what extent the plots were serious to begin with. And a handful of young Somali Americans have either traveled or allegedly planned to travel to Somalia or Syria to join terrorist or insurgent groups. (There was also a foiled plot earlier this year in which three white Americans allegedly planned to blow up a Kansas apartment complex that was home to more than 100 Somali immigrants.)
No doubt Somalia is a troubled country, scarred by religious violence. That’s why people are fleeing, and why the United States has taken in some 100,000 refugees from the nation in the past 15 years. But based on what we know about the perpetrators, the troubles that lead to these sorts of attacks don’t seem to originate in Somalia, nor with ISIS or any other international terror group.
According to the New York Times, Artan left Somalia at a young age, finding refuge with his family in Pakistan before entering the United States two years ago. Once here, he seemed to thrive at first, graduating with honors from Columbus State Community College before transferring to Ohio State. Sources told the Times there was no evidence he harbored any radical ideology, at least until the Facebook rant. Nor does he seem to have been active in the local Muslim community.
The St. Cloud mall stabber, Dahir Adan, was born in a refugee camp in Kenya and had lived in the United States since age 2, becoming a U.S. citizen in 2008. Again, he did not seem to be part of any religious extremist groups, and indications were that he acted alone in the stabbing. To whatever extent these young men became radicalized, then, it seems to have happened here in the United States—and without the knowledge of others in their Somali American communities.
When I grew up in Columbus in the 1980s and 1990s, the city’s Somali-born population was negligible. The influx of refugees began in the early 2000s, when Somalia spiraled into chaos following a failed U.S. intervention and an Ethiopian incursion. When I returned in 2010, its population had boomed past 20,000. Estimates now put it closer to 38,000, if not more.
The Somali community in Columbus is, by American standards, quite poor and socially isolated. Muslim, black, and culturally foreign, it’s hard to imagine a group of people more likely to be marginalized in a Midwestern U.S. city. Add to that the language barriers and personal traumas that many Somali refugees face, and you have what seems like the perfect recipe for poverty, alienation, and ultimately, radicalization. No one who understands the situation can be shocked that a few Somali Americans have turned to violence, or that this violence has taken a form that resembles Islamic terrorism.
What’s surprising, if anything, is just how rare these outbursts have been. For all the publicity around a handful of stabbings and FBI stings, fewer than a dozen of the more than 100,000 U.S. Somali refugees have ever attempted anything like Artan did. And while the country has seen a spike in mass killings over the past 10 years, including many by white Americans, not one has been perpetrated by a Somali refugee. In other words, these refugees, despite everything stacked against them, have overwhelmingly rejected violence and radicalization.
This is not a fluke or an accident. Spend any time in Columbus’ Somali American community and you’ll quickly see that it is not a hotbed of anger or radicalism. Rather, it is a hotbed of entrepreneurial spirit, economic optimism, religious piety, and conservative family values. It is, in these respects, stereotypically American. Somalis in Columbus, as in other U.S. cities, have reinvigorated flagging neighborhoods by opening markets, restaurants, and community centers in vacant storefronts and shopping malls. A former T.J. Maxx in Northwest Columbus has become the Global Mall, a vibrant warren of Somali-owned businesses including halal grocers, clothing boutiques, and barber shops.
But there is one respect in which Somalis’ lives differ markedly from those of other Americans—even from other groups of poor immigrants or ethnic or religious minorities. The shadow of suspicion hangs over their heads constantly. FBI agents hang around their mosques. Police check up on them regularly to ask if they’ve heard of anyone becoming radicalized. They realize they may never again see their loved ones who remain in Somalia or Kenyan refugee camps, and they know that the reason is because many Americans fear them. “I had a Somali woman in my office today who has a 7-year-old daughter with a family-reunification application that has been pending for years,” says Angela Plummer, executive director of CRIS, a Columbus nonprofit that helps refugees find homes and jobs. “They’ve followed all the rules. I’m extremely worried that they may never be reunited. It’s devastating.”
It’s a feeling that Somali Americans deal with on a daily basis—the feeling of being feared, of being watched, of the deck being stacked against them. And the vast majority of them deal with it incredibly well.
But in any community, refugee or otherwise, there are people who struggle to get along in society, who feel socially untethered, out of place, hopeless, desperate, or angry—or suffer from mental illness. Being poor and isolated certainly doesn’t help. Nor does it help when your paranoia has some basis in reality—that is, when you really are being watched everywhere you go. In Somali communities, as in others, a few people deal with this poorly. Instead of bearing up, they break.
People can break by turning to drugs or gangs or weird cults, depending on their experiences and the cultural context. In Somali American communities, there’s a scarier alternative. It’s the one offered by ISIS, and by other extremist groups, and by a relatively small number of radical imams around the world, some of whom have online platforms. That alternative is to channel one’s discontent into religious fervor, hatred of the West, or a personal jihad of some sort—and, eventually, into a public act of violence against strangers. There are even specific blueprints available for how to do it. According to the New Yorker, the ISIS magazine Rumiyah last month published a special issue on knife attacksthat included highly detailed advice on blades and killing techniques.
Again, it’s impossible to know exactly what was in Artan’s head when he drove a car into pedestrians and stabbed people with a butcher’s knife. But the act appears to have had less in common with coordinated strikes by international terrorist groups than with the actions of other young Americans—mostly white and male—who open fire in a school, an office building, or a church. Jared Lee Loughner, Dylann Roof—these are young people who snapped, perhaps saw themselves reflected in a hate-filled cause, and decided to take others down with them.
“I don’t think Somali American youth are different from any other youth in the sense that they’re adolescents going through adolescence,” says Mohammed Farah, a third-year student at Ohio State who is the son of Somali refugees. “I do think Somali American youth may or may not be going through a lot, but we’re not a monolith.”
To attribute an act of violence by a troubled individual to ISIS is to play into the group’s hands. Not only does it boost ISIS’s stature, it sows the very enmity against Muslims in Western societies that fuels extremism’s appeal to the disaffected. It leads to headlines like this one on Fox News: “Ohio State attack latest stain on Somali community in Columbus.” (It was filed in the “Terror” section.) And Farah told me he is worried it could lead to even wider suffering than that which Artan himself inflicted. “Abdul Razak Ali Artan had 11 victims, and that is a tragedy,” Farah said. “I would hate for all refugees in America to also become his victims, and Donald Trump’s victims.”
The real problems in Somali refugee communities are not religious or geopolitical, but economic and social. The way to solve them is to help create the conditions for Somali refugees and their children to thrive, so that fewer of them even consider the option that Artan chose. That’s not an easy fix, either. But at least we’d all be in it together.
U.S. Put 92 Somalis on a Deportation Flight, Then Brought Them Back
Ninety-two Somali citizens were flown out of the United States under orders of deportation on Thursday, but their plane never made it to Somalia. The flight landed in the West African country of Senegal and, facing logistical problems, was rerouted back to the United States.
It was an unexpected, 5,000-mile backtrack for the migrants, some of whom have lived in the United States for years, or even decades, while on a list for deportation because they had entered the country without proper documentation.
In recent weeks, dozens of Somali citizens were transported from their homes in the United States — many were living in Minnesota — to Louisiana in preparation for the flight. A few, with the help of lawyers, managed to secure stays of removal.
The 92 on the plane got only as far as Senegal’s capital, Dakar, according to United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In an emailed statement on Friday, the agency said it was notified that a relief flight crew was “unable to get sufficient crew rest due to issues with their hotel in Dakar,” so the aircraft and detainees spent time parked at the airport there. It added that “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.”
War, famine and disease have killed hundreds of thousands of people in Somalia since the central government collapsed in 1991. Militants, including members of the Shabab, an Islamist terrorist group, are still carrying out deadly attacks in the Horn of Africa country. A pair of truck explosions killed hundreds of people on one of the busiest streets in Mogadishu, the capital, in October. It was the deadliest attack the city had experienced in decades.
Kim Hunter, a lawyer whose firm represents two men who were on the flight, said it did not make sense to send her clients back to such a dangerous country.
“The security situation is abysmal,” she said on Thursday. “I, apparently, was naïve because I actually believed that following the Oct. 14 bombing, this flight might be suspended.”
Ms. Hunter learned on Friday that the flight had turned around and her clients’ deportations had been rescheduled, though it was unclear for when. An ICE spokeswoman said the agency does not provide that information in advance.
Ms. Hunter said she also had no advance notice when immigration officials recently transported five of her clients from their Minnesota homes. (They were first taken to Louisiana to prepare for their deportation.) Her law firm scrambled to secure stays of removal for the men and helped three avoid the flight.
Now that the other two have had their deportations delayed, Ms. Hunter said she would keep working to prevent their removal. Neither client has a criminal record, and both have been in the United States for more than a decade. One is married to a permanent resident and has children who are United States citizens.
“We’re inclined to think that this sort of failed flight reflects on the fact that more deportations are being carried out in haste and are perhaps not as well-planned as they might have been previously,” she added.
One Somali woman in Minnesota, who did not want to give her name for fear of getting her family in trouble with the authorities, said in a phone interview on Friday that her cousin was among those on the flight.
She said she had been desperate for answers since Wednesday, when her cousin called from Louisiana saying he was about to be deported. “I was very sad. I cried, and he told me not to make him cry,” she said, adding that it would be dangerous for him to land in Mogadishu because he had no connections there. “He hasn’t seen Somalia for the last 20 years.”
Many Somali citizens who are in the United States without documentation have been able to stay for years despite deportation orders because Somalia would not grant them the necessary travel documents. Mogadishu, which opened an embassy in Washington in 2015, appears to be cooperating with American officials to accept more of its citizens back.
The number of Somali people being deported from the United States has risen since 2014. During that fiscal year, 65 Somali citizens were removed from the United States. That number jumped to 120 the next year, and 198 the year after that.
In the fiscal year 2017, 521 Somali citizens were deported, according to the most recent report from ICE. A spokeswoman for the agency said there were five chartered flights to Somalia that year.
Canada’s immigration minister warns against illegal crossings at Minnesota’s northern border
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.”
Plane carrying deportees to Somalia returns to the United States
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.”