STAR TRIBUNE — An unprecedented “cluster” of Minnesotans aspiring to become jihadists overseas fueled the nation’s highest rate of terrorism recruitment, according to a new study that also found that attempts to travel to Syria or Iraq are on a steady decline since 2015.
The number of Americans to successfully join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is just a fraction of the several thousand Europeans who have made it into the group’s ranks. But researchers at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism found that Minnesota, particularly the Twin Cities, has seen an unusually active rate of jihadist mobilization with roots in an earlier wave of departures to join Somalia’s Al-Shabab militants in the late 2000s.
In a report released Monday called “The Travelers: American Jihadists in Syria and Iraq,” three terrorism scholars described a Twin Cities cluster more akin to terror conspiracy hubs in Belgian and French neighborhoods than the more common one- and two-off efforts more typically foiled by American law enforcement.
“The relatively high number of travelers is a reflection of the personal connections,” Seamus Hughes, one of the report’s authors, said Monday. “Brothers, roommates, and friends of individuals who traveled to join Al-Shabab in Somalia were part of the group that traveled to Syria. Personal connections still matter a great deal to successfully make it to conflict areas.”
The report — authored by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, Hughes and Bennett Clifford — looked at seven Minnesota cases of successful travelers who were part of a group of 64 Americans who traveled to join jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq since 2011. They found at least another 50 Americans who were stopped from trying to travel overseas and added that both data sets “pale in comparison to recruitment” from some European cities.
But while the most popular form of “jihadist mobilization” has recently been traveling to join groups like ISIS abroad, the recent loss of territory and calls for a renewed focus on attacks in the West have contributed to a steady drop in traveler cases since 2015, the report found.
“The concern is that, absent a physical space to travel to, their focus will shift elsewhere to avenging the loss of the Islamic State,” Hughes said. “We’ve seen Islamic State propaganda romanticizing the lost caliphate and calling for those to commit attacks out of revenge.”
Though all but one of the publicly identified Minnesota travelers were male, the state’s travelers were much younger than the report’s average age of 27. The report cautioned that researchers have been unable to identify a single profile of would-be jihadists.
Minnesota’s successful travelers — like Hanad Mohallim and Abdi Nur — kept in touch with friends back home as they attempted to follow them to Syria in 2014 and 2015. The report cited a senior law enforcement official involved in the investigation as saying that had Abdullahi Yusuf not raised suspicions during his passport application interview, Yusuf might never have been stopped from boarding a May 2014 flight to Istanbul the day before Nur left on a similar flight undetected.
The tip triggered the nation’s largest terror recruitment probe, netting nine convictions and additional charges in absentia against those who made it overseas.
The researchers called the Minnesota case “the one known exception to the norm of American traveler networks” in that the group transcended several friend and family circles and included at least 15 people directly. Co-conspirators had connections to Al-Shabab members, like Mohamed Hassan, a Roosevelt High grad who has been under indictment since 2009 for allegedly joining the group in Somalia.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota has not charged anyone with trying to support terrorists since the 2016 case. Last year, the Star Tribune reported on a previously unidentified St. Louis Park college student who is believed to have left his family to join ISIS on a trip to their native Morocco in 2015. By all accounts thus far, Abdelhamid Al-Madioum had no clear connection to the larger traveler network, which was predominantly young Somali men.
Federal agents in Minnesota have more recently been looking for links to terrorism in violent cases like the 2016 stabbing at St. Cloud’s Crossroads Center mall for which ISIS claimed credit, and in a pair of Twin Cities cases still being assessed by law enforcement.
Mahad A. Abdirahman, 20, surprised federal authorities last month when he told a Hennepin County judge that he sought to answer the call of ISIS leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi when he stabbed two men at the Mall of America last fall. Original charging documents didn’t list a motive and suggested Abdirahman had psychological problems. He is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 16 and a plea deal calls for him to serve 15½ years — five years more than either of the six Minnesotans sentenced last year after pleading guilty to conspiring to support ISIS.
It is also unclear whether federal charges will be pursued against former St. Catherine University student Tnuza J. Hassan, who told police that she wanted to burn the school “to the ground” when she set a series of small fires on campus last month.
According to a criminal complaint charging her with first-degree arson, Hassan told investigators she would have used a bomb if she knew how to build one and that she had written a letter containing “radical ideas about supporting Muslims and bringing back the caliphate.”
When radicalization lured two Somali teenagers … from Norway
Acclaimed Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad spent years researching what happened. Now her book, “Two Sisters: Into the Syrian Jihad” is available in the United States.
Seierstad, who discusses her book Monday night at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, said she didn’t go looking for the story.
“The story actually came to me,” she said. “It was the father of the girls who actually wanted the story to be written.”
His name is Sadiq, a Somali man who worked for years to bring his family to Norway. He hoped for a better life. He thought things were going well, then everything collapsed when Ayan and Leila disappeared.
When the girls left home, their parents were in shock, Seierstad said. “They hadn’t understood what was this about. Why? And then as months went by and they got to learn more about radicalization, they realized that all the signs had been there. That the girls were like a textbook case of radicalization. And he [Sadiq] wanted the book to be written to warn others, to tell this story to warn other parents.”
It is a perplexing story. Ayan and Leila were bright, and opinionated. They didn’t put up with being pushed around.
“And that is somehow part of why they left, in their logic,” said Seierstad, adding that the girls were convinced Syria and ISIS offered a chance of eternal life.
“They believed that life here and now is not real life. Real life happens after death. And this life is only important as a test. So the better your score, the better you behave in this life, the better position you will have in heaven for eternity. So isn’t that better?”
Seierstad is known for her in-depth reporting. Her book “One of Us,” about Anders Breivik, the gunman who killed 77 people in Norway’s worst terror attack, is an international best-seller.
When published in Norway Seierstad said, “Two Sisters” became the top-selling book for two years running. What pleases her most is the breadth of her readership. She gets email from young Somali girls, and also from government officials who want to prevent future radicalization.
Ilhan Omar documentary among Minnesota projects headed to New York’s Tribeca Film Festival
STAR TRIBUNE — Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival will have more than a touch of Minnesota this year. Two projects shot largely in the state will be part of the event that runs from April 18-29 in New York City.
“A Time for Ilhan,” by documentary filmmaker Norah Shapiro, chronicles Ilhan Omar’s successful bid to win election to the Minnesota House of Representatives, making her the first Somali-American, Muslim woman to hold state office in the United States.
In addition, Rosemount native Naomi Ko will be shopping a pilot for a potential series. “Nice,” which was mostly shot in the Twin Cities, stars Ko as a young Korean-American woman who faces a crisis when she’s diagnosed with cancer. Ko, who appeared in the 2014 indie hit “Dear White People,” is hoping screenings at the festival will attract a streaming service or network that will green-light an entire season.
The festival, now in its 17th year, will also feature new documentaries about Gilda Radner and the New York Times, as well as high-profile feature films, including the sci-fi romance “Zoe,” starring Ewan McGregor, last seen showing off his Midwest accent in “Fargo.”
After charges in Justine Damond killing, racial dynamic remains a focal point
STAR TRIBUNE — To some, the question loomed large as a former Minneapolis police officer was charged in the killing of an unarmed woman: Would the charges — the first in a case involving a fatal shooting by police in recent Hennepin County history — have come if the officer hadn’t been black and Somali-American and the victim hadn’t been white?
An intense debate over the shooting’s uncommon racial dynamic has played out among police reform activists, in the city’s Somali malls and among the police department’s own officers. Even some passionate proponents of police accountability balked at celebrating the murder and manslaughter charges against Officer Mohamed Noor, saying they reflected the justice system’s racial bias as much as previous local decisions not to charge cops who kill in the line of duty. Some Somali-Americans worried their community, rather than the use of deadly force by an officer, will end up on trial.
But others said the charges are a clear win in the push for more scrutiny of police use of force and possibly the beginning of a tougher approach to law enforcement accountability. Noor shot Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a 40-year-old Australian spiritual healer and meditation coach, minutes after she called police to report a suspected sexual assault in her southwest Minneapolis neighborhood.
“There have been numerous shootings that the community felt were unjustified and this one with Ms. Damond is one of them,” said Nathaniel Khaliq, past president of the St. Paul NAACP. “I hope it lowers the threshold for officers to be charged in deadly shootings.”
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced the charges Tuesday, more than eight months after Damond’s killing and nearly two years to the day after he declined to charge two white officers in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Jamar Clark. Damond’s family welcomed the charges, calling them “one step toward justice for this iniquitous act.”
Criticism of the charges
On the question of the Noor charges at Remix Barber and Beauty shop in Minneapolis Friday morning, the predominantly black clientele was in near-agreement: After years of pressure for more accountability in fatal officer shootings, a black cop had been made the fall guy. Customers and co-owner Chanda Tolbert said the charges came as no surprise given the races of the officer and the woman who was shot.
“Race has everything to do with it,” customer Teena Hill said. “It’s not a justice system for us.”
Reaction at nearby Jones and Jones Barber Shop, only a block from the site of Clark’s shooting in 2015, echoed that sentiment. “If it was a white police officer shooting a black man, he wouldn’t have been charged,” said Rob Hannah as he waited to get a haircut. “The system fails us a lot.”
Added owner A.J. Turner, “The Somali community needs to be in an uproar. I would be.”
Talk about race and perceived racial bias has lit up Somali community members’ social media accounts, animated coffee shop conversations and brought a couple of emotional impromptu community meetings in the days following the charges. Some have questioned whether Noor was treated differently from other cops who have killed in the line of duty, alleging a rush to judgment absent after other police shootings.
“A lot of the community is saying that if it’s Michael or David, he’s not going to be guilty today,” said Mahamed Cali, who runs KALY 101.7 FM, a Somali-American radio station.
After months of silence, the Somali American Police Association (SAPA) last week criticized the charges, suggesting Freeman had bowed to political pressure ahead of his re-election bid later this year. In an interview, Waheid Siraach, acting spokesman for SAPA, said the case raises legitimate questions about racial bias.
He pointed to former Police Chief Janeé Harteau’s news conference several days after the shooting in which she condemned Noor’s actions before an investigation had been completed. He also noted a cellphone video of Freeman criticizing the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for its handling of the case and telling activists in a taped conversation that to make a charging decision would be “the big present I’d like to see under the Christmas tree.”
“The aggressiveness, the ruthlessness with which Freeman went after this case, and personally Noor, it’s completely different from how they went after other cases,” Siraach said.
Privately, some Somali-American officers complained they were called in to testify before the grand jury simply because of their ethnicity. They spoke about several racially charged incidents in the department in the aftermath of Damond’s shooting, including disparaging comments about Somalis made by a white sergeant on Facebook, which were investigated last month.
Officers and community activists such as Omar Jamal also criticized Noor’s Tuesday firing, which they said sends a strong message to potential jurors. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Police Federation, usually an outspoken advocate of officers accused of wrongdoing, remained largely silent about the Noor matter for months.
Some in the Somali community worry about a broader backlash, noting feverish speculation in some corners of the internet and elsewhere that Noor’s religion and ethnicity motivated the shooting. Former Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann called Noor an “affirmative-action hire by the hijab-wearing mayor of Minneapolis, Betsy Hodges,” and insinuated that Noor may have shot Damond for “cultural” reasons.
Others decried the case as a possible setback in law enforcement efforts to engage with the East African community and recruit officers from its ranks, an initiative that has received international recognition.
“A lot of young people wanted to be a police officer, but they’re rethinking it now,” said Cali, citing his own son as an example. “A lot of young people are saying, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be [the next] Mohamed.’ ”
Some prominent black police reform advocates are speaking out in Noor’s defense. Ron Edwards, a longtime civil rights activist in Minneapolis, noted that 11 days before Damond was shot, on-duty New York City police officer Miosotis Familia was shot and killed as she sat in an RV police command vehicle in the Bronx. During roll calls across the country, Edwards said, officers were told to be on the lookout for situations in which they could be ambushed, to “have their weapons prepared.”
“In those tragic few seconds, officers were following their orders,” he said, adding, “Justice was not served, but I wasn’t surprised.”
Support for the charges
But the response to the charges in Twin Cities communities of color is far from uniform. For some, the bottom line is that a police officer is being held accountable in the death of an unarmed civilian. They feel the case has helped broaden the call for police and criminal justice reform — and could serve as a rallying cry for a community still reeling from the 2016 shooting death of St. Paul school cafeteria worker Philando Castile by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez. Yanez was acquitted last year on manslaughter charges.
Farhio Khalif, a Somali-American women’s advocate, said she welcomed the charges against Noor as a chance to get to the bottom of what happened the night Damond was killed.
“My solidarity is with the Damond family. Justine has to be given her justice,” she said.
Khalif says that to her, Noor was simply a Minneapolis officer who shot an unarmed woman, and she voiced disappointment that much has been made in the public discourse of his Somali-American background. She said she trusts that the justice system will handle the case without regard to Noor’s race and background.
Some black community advocates also said they are heartened by the charges.
“Just because racist white folks do terrible things to black folks, we don’t have to act like them,” said Mel Reeves, one of the leaders of an unsuccessful campaign pushing Freeman to indict two officers in the Clark shooting. “I don’t support wrong. Clearly, if officer Noor shot Justine Damond, he should be punished.”
All eyes now turn to Noor’s upcoming prosecution. The proliferation of video and other factors have increased pressure on prosecutors around the country to not only charge but convict officers involved in controversial shootings, according to Justin Nix, who has studied police use of force at the University of Nebraska Omaha’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Yet, convictions remain uncommon.
Much remains unknown in the Damond case, which was not captured on video because the officers’ body cameras were turned off at the critical moment. Still, Nix said there appeared to be enough evidence to support charges, regardless of the victim and officer’s race.
“If you separate race from that and you just look at those facts, this is one of those very questionable cases in which charges might be pursued,” he said.
Staff writer Andy Mannix contributed to this report.