A meatpacking town in Kansas opened its doors to Somali refugees. Then a group of Trump supporters plotted to kill them after Election Day.
On October 11, 2016, less than a month before Election Day, police in Liberal, Kansas, sat in their cruisers outside G&G Home Center, waiting for Curtis Allen to emerge. The mobile home dealership where Allen worked was nothing more than a prefab trailer hauled onto a patch of scrub grass along a remote stretch of Highway 83 on the outskirts of town. His GMC Yukon was sitting in the parking lot, so the officers felt certain that he was one of two men they could see moving around inside. When the men left in separate vehicles, police believed that Allen was in the Yukon—but it was getting dark and they had to be sure. After the trucks turned onto the highway, the officers signaled for both drivers to pull over.
The police had reason to be cautious. Less than an hour earlier, Allen’s girlfriend had called 911 to report that he had beaten her during an argument. When Sergeant Jeffrey Wade from the Liberal Police Department arrived to take a statement at the mobile home park where she and Allen lived, the woman showed him something unexpected: a room packed with handguns, gunsmithing tools, and boxes of ammunition stacked to the ceiling. Police later estimated that the trailer contained nearly a metric ton of bullets.
Now, with their lights flashing, officers warily approached the two vehicles on the highway shoulder. A search of Allen’s Yukon turned up magazines for AR-15s, AK-47s, and Glock handguns. Allen, who had an earlier conviction for domestic battery, was barred from possessing guns or ammunition; Liberal police arrested him on the spot. The other driver, Gavin Wright, Allen’s boss at G&G, was asked to submit voluntarily to a search of his Dodge Ram. He refused and was released.
Soon after, Liberal’s police chief was contacted by the FBI. It turned out that the bureau had been tracking Allen and Wright, as well as a third suspect named Patrick Stein, for months. The three men were the founders of a new anti-Muslim white supremacist group that called itself the Crusaders. As their inaugural act, the FBI said, the men were plotting to carry out a Timothy McVeigh–style bombing in Garden City, Kansas, about an hour north of Liberal. Their plan was to detonate two cargo vans loaded with massive amounts of ammonium nitrate in the parking lots of the Garden Spot Apartments, a sprawling complex straddling both sides of West Mary Street. The drab, one-story units were inhabited primarily by Somalis and other refugees, who had come to Garden City to work at the nearby Tyson meatpacking plant.
When the Somalis first began arriving, back in 2006, they had been hailed as the vanguard of a more diverse and tolerant era. “America’s future arrived early in Garden City,” declared the Wichita Eagle. NPR described the town of 27,000 as a hopeful bellwether—“a meatpacking town that embraces its new cultures.” The Somalis joined earlier waves of Cambodian, Vietnamese, Burmese, and Hispanic refugees drawn to the region’s beef-packing plants, and the town had gone out of its way to welcome the newcomers, rezoning lots for new housing, providing city services, and incorporating the workers into the life of the community. On the town’s main street, Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal Church, Bad Boyz Boxing Club, and Lam Gia Thai Restaurant all shared a parking lot. The new residents provided cheap and uncomplaining labor for the beef industry, a source of tax revenue for the town, and a steady stream of customers for local businesses. “Garden City saw ethnic diversity as a commodity they could exploit,” says Donald Stull, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Kansas who led a study for the Ford Foundation of the town’s shifting demographics.
The Crusaders didn’t see it that way. Curtis Allen, who had served in Iraq and returned with PTSD, sank into a hatred of Muslims. He worked at a tire shop in his hometown of Ashland for a while before drifting west to Liberal, where he fell in with a series of militia groups. He also met Wright, who had gone from working at a meatpacking plant to selling mobile homes to house the influx of new immigrants. Last summer, when Allen planted a MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN sign in front of his mobile home, his neighbors—most of them Hispanic immigrants—couldn’t help but notice. Allen told them he was angry at Muslims. He allegedly voiced outrage over the Muslim terror attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and was angry that “Crooked Hillary” was “openly running on disarming the American people.” He told another neighbor that the Somalis at the National Beef packing plant in Liberal were “taking all our jobs” and needed to be gotten rid of.
What his neighbors didn’t know was that Allen was getting ready to put his words into action.
The FBI had a decision to make. Patrick Stein, the unofficial leader of the Crusaders, was scheduled to meet with an undercover agent the day after Allen was arrested. Believing that the agent was a crime boss who had experience building massive bombs using cell phones as remote-control triggers, Stein had arranged the meeting to discuss payment in the form of cash and methamphetamines. But now that Allen was in jail, there was a chance that Stein would be too spooked to show. Should agents wait to see if he stuck to the meet, or arrest him and Wright immediately?
Allen’s girlfriend told agents that Allen had been learning to manufacture explosives by studying videos on YouTube. At G&G, she had watched him stir up hydrogen peroxide and fuel tablets to make hexamethylene triperoxide diamine—a common homemade explosive used to make blasting caps to detonate larger bombs. The Crusaders already had the means to detonate a large blast, but not reliably, and apparently only if they were willing to serve as suicide bombers. During an exchange of text messages to set up the meeting, the undercover agent had asked Stein what weapons the group was hoping to acquire. “High explosives,” Stein replied, “automatic weapons RPG shit brother if I could get a hold of a warthog or Apache helicopter I would be after that too.” The Crusaders, it appeared, had more ambition than actual firepower. The FBI decided not to arrest Stein or Wright, gambling that they still believed Allen was being held only for domestic abuse.
The next day, October 12, undercover agents met Stein as planned in a remote rural area outside of Garden City. To bolster their cover as mobsters, the agents offered him his pick from a cache of weapons. Stein selected an AR-15 and an AK-47, each converted to full-auto, then eagerly directed one of the agents to the Garden Spot Apartments. As they drove into town, Stein couldn’t stop talking about the residents of the complex. At almost any time of day, Somali women gathered outside the units, draped in brightly colored dresses, most with their heads covered by hijabs. Their children chased each other in the grass. They were everywhere. “Literally every fucking apartment,” Stein said in a conversation recorded by the FBI. There was even an informal mosque in one of the units. “That’s all it is, fucking goddamn cockroaches.”
The Crusaders worried that the attack might help Hillary Clinton’s presidential chances. “We cannot let Hillary back into the White House,” Stein told an undercover agent.
The Crusaders had initially planned to carry out the attack on September 11, but then called it off, worried that a mass murder might help Hillary Clinton’s chances in the presidential campaign. “We cannot let Hillary back into the White House,” Stein told the undercover agent. So they decided to wait—until the night after the election. Under cover of darkness, the Crusaders would ease the cargo vans into place. The Somali workers would be sleeping after the second shift at Tyson or rising for morning prayers at their mosque, when the bombers made the deadly calls on their cell phones. After the explosions, they would swoop into the wreckage and shoot any survivors. “There’s no leaving anyone behind, even if it’s a one-year-old,” Stein said. “I’m serious. I guarantee if I go on a mission those little fuckers are going bye-bye.”
Two days later, Stein met again with the undercover agent, this time at a McDonald’s in Dodge City. He loaded 300 pounds of ammonium nitrate into the agent’s car, then went inside for breakfast. The FBI arrested him, and picked up Gavin Wright outside G&G Homes. A search of a storage locker Wright had rented turned up bomb-making materials and a safe full of semiautomatic rifles and handguns. When an agent asked if Stein had any misgivings about killing children, he expressed no remorse. Most of his targets, he insisted, were “fighting age.”
On October 21, Stein appeared at a bail hearing in Wichita. His attorney, Ed Robinson, offered a provocative defense: A steady stream of fake news, spread on social media, had convinced the Crusaders that America was in a state of emergency. Stein believed that the presidential election was rigged against Donald Trump, and that the Muslim Brotherhood had seized control of the government. Even if Trump somehow managed to win, Stein was certain that President Obama would immediately invalidate the results and declare martial law. United Nations tanks had already been sent into southwestern Kansas to subdue the populace. Everyone was in on it—from Obama to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, “even getting down to the local government.”
Such conspiracy theories, Robinson observed, weren’t just emanating from fake-news outlets. In the days before the election, the Republican Party had been mailing out election flyers in Kansas attacking Democratic candidates for “moving terrorists to Kansas.” In a high-profile speech on August 4, Trump himself warned that terrorists from Somalia and other Muslim countries were scheming to gain entrance to the United States by posing as refugees, calling it “the great Trojan horse of all time.” In the face of a coming revolution, the Crusaders saw themselves as a special breed of patriot, a self-chosen few unwilling to stand by while Muslim foreigners took over the country. In the words of Stein’s attorney, they decided to put together a plan to “deal with that mosque and those people.”
Immigrants have long been the backbone of American meatpacking. At the dawn of the twentieth century, just as skilled, small-scale butchering operations were being replaced by large, factory-style slaughterhouses, the United States was opening its borders to mass immigration. Jews targeted by the pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia, Italians and Greeks displaced by crop failures in the southern Mediterranean, Mexicans fleeing violence during the revolution, and Armenians escaping genocide in Turkey all poured into New York City and then migrated west along railroad lines. Few of the new arrivals spoke English, and many were illiterate in their native languages. But meatpacking jobs required little in the way of language skills, and immigrants were often given the most demanding and dangerous positions on the cut line. If they were exploited, they at least received better pay than they could find in other low-skill lines of work.
Midwestern cities thrived on the strength of immigrant labor; the stockyards in Kansas City grew into the second largest livestock exchange and meatpacking district in America. But the remote, southwestern corner of Kansas remained largely unpopulated until the 1960s, when advances in irrigation technology suddenly made it possible for ranchers to grow enough corn to sustain industrial-scale cattle feedlots. Within a decade, livestock trailers loaded with cattle from Oklahoma, Texas, and Colorado were streaming into three vast beef-processing plants in Garden City, Dodge City, and Liberal, forming what came to be known as the Golden Triangle of American beef packing. And as the meatpacking industry surged west, immigrant workers came with it.
By the 1980s, when Iowa Beef Packers announced it would open the world’s largest beef plant just outside Garden City, the region was already feeding and slaughtering roughly a quarter of all the cattle processed in North America. IBP needed thousands of workers to get its new production lines running—far more than the area, which was already at near-zero unemployment, could provide. So IBP turned to a new immigrant population eager for work: refugees fleeing life-threatening oppression around the world. In 1980, Jimmy Carter had tripled the number of political refugees who could be admitted to the United States. Over the next decade, the population of Garden City soared, from 18,000 to 24,000. Two-thirds of the newcomers were Southeast Asian or Hispanic.
Garden City was completely unprepared for the sudden influx. Workers were forced to live out of cars, tents, and hotels. IBP lobbied the city to rezone, allowing the construction of mobile home parks. Before long, a trailer park on the eastern edge of town swelled to more than 500 units, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the town’s entire population. Crime and fires were rampant, and almost none of the new residents had access to essential services.
In an effort to improve conditions nationwide, the Ford Foundation sponsored studies of communities across the country that were grappling with the arrival of large numbers of new immigrants. Garden City was selected as the sole case study for small towns in middle America. Spurred by Ford’s involvement, the community came to see its growing diversity as good for business. Town police worked with new arrivals to ease crime; local leaders helped refugees set up their own businesses. For a small Kansas town in the middle of nowhere, Garden City had the feel of a bigger, more progressive city. “We described Garden City as a cosmopolitan place,” says Donald Stull, the anthropologist who conducted the Ford study. “But it became, in some ways, a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Even when tensions gradually emerged over the town’s shifting demographics, he says, many local leaders remained convinced that all was well: “These folks came in from outside with Ford Foundation money and said we’re really cosmopolitan, and, by golly, we must be.”
The unease was exacerbated by a wave of consolidation in the beef industry. As more and more meatpacking companies merged, American-born workers were systematically replaced by immigrant labor. The situation worsened in 2000, when the local ConAgra plant burned to the ground on Christmas Day, putting nearly 10 percent of Garden City’s residents out of work overnight. The sudden spike in unemployment, combined with the anti-immigrant sentiment that arose in the wake of the September 11 attacks, began to undercut Garden City’s welcoming posture. Tensions only increased in 2006, when George W. Bush unleashed a nationwide crackdown on undocumented Hispanic immigrants. Many meatpacking plants were forced to replenish their workforce—but instead of turning to the local labor pool, they doubled down on their reliance on refugees.
Refugees provide an almost ideal workforce for slaughterhouses. They have legal status, can’t afford to complain about dangerous jobs, and are less likely to join unions.
Refugees provide an almost ideal workforce for meatpacking plants. They have legal status, which protects their employers from immigration raids. They can’t afford to complain about the heavy and dangerous workloads they’re given. And they’re less likely to unionize than American-born workers. In 2007, employees at the Tyson plant, many of them refugees, voted to reject a unionization effort by a margin of 3 to 1. After trying to recruit African Americans in Chicago and Puerto Ricans in Cleveland, meatpackers in the Golden Triangle zeroed in on refugees from the Twin Cities—most of them from Burma and Somalia. “They have been recruited in poultry and beef plants quite systematically,” Stull says.
At meatpacking plants in Kansas and elsewhere, long-simmering tensions over immigrant labor soon boiled over. American-born job applicants sued the companies, claiming discrimination in hiring. Muslim workers were fired for taking unauthorized prayer breaks. Fistfights broke out among workers on the line. But Tyson, which had taken over the massive IBP plant outside Garden City, went out of its way to make Muslim workers feel at home. The company provided Somali employees with two prayer breaks per shift, in dedicated prayer rooms at its plants. Bathrooms were retrofitted with foot-washing stations, and workers were even given prayer rugs outfitted with a compass to allow them to pray toward Mecca.
In some towns, however, such accommodations only served to further stoke the anger of American-born employees. At the Tyson plant in Emporia, Kansas, wild rumors began to spread—that the Somalis were carrying tuberculosis and contaminating the meat, that a group of Somali men had raped a female co-worker in an equipment closet. Outside the plant, there were stories that Somali women who refused to use tampons had dripped menstrual blood through the local Wal-Mart, that a riot of Somali men had broken out in a local parking lot, that a gang of Somalis wielding machetes had been seen outside the Dairy Queen. The Ayan Café, a Somali-run market and restaurant in Emporia, was frequently vandalized; in January 2007, armed gunmen attacked the store. Patty Gilligan, a spokesperson for the town, viewed the resistance to the Somalis as more than religious. “I can’t help but think their skin color had something to do with it,” she told reporters.
Officials from the city, the school district, and the state held months of community meetings, trying to allay the fears and resentment of angry residents. Finally, in January 2008, Tyson announced that it was closing its Emporia slaughterhouse, eliminating the 1,500 jobs it had created barely a year before. The 400 Somali workers at the plant were offered bonuses to relocate to Garden City, and the rest of the Somali community in Emporia decided to go with them, including the owners of the Ayan Café. “If there’s no Tyson,” one of the café’s employees told the Emporia Gazette, “our business is going down.”
The workers who moved to Garden City felt like they had traveled to another planet. While all of the meatpacking towns in the Golden Triangle had recruited Somalis, none was as diverse as Garden City, where Somalis now make up nearly the entire second shift at Tyson. When the refugees arrived and began moving into the Garden Spot apartments, city officials were ready to receive them. “If you want to buy a house, if you want your own company, nothing can stop you,” says Mursal Naleye, a Somali refugee who moved to Garden City in 2011 to work for Tyson. “You can do everything you want in Garden City.”
By the time Naleye arrived, however, the climate was already starting to change. “There were always whispers,” a local elementary school teacher told CNN. But after the election of Barack Obama and the rise of the Tea Party, the whispers grew louder. In 2010, new census numbers revealed that white residents now made up only 43 percent of Garden City, leaving many feeling outnumbered in their own community. Whites are also a minority in four neighboring counties, including the towns of Dodge City and Liberal.
White residents who felt anxious or aggrieved over the demographic shifts didn’t have to look very far for support. Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who had risen to national prominence after he delivered a speech at the GOP convention in 2004 calling for the military to be deployed along the Mexican border, was openly working to prevent many voters of color from casting ballots. One group in particular, he claimed, was guilty of widespread voter fraud: Somali refugees. “We don’t know the entire number,” Kobach told the Wichita Eagle in 2010. “We just know people have been observed registering people outside the meatpacking plants.”
Kobach claimed that a Kansas City race for the state House had been “stolen” when J.J. Rizzo, a Democratic candidate, received “about 50 votes illegally cast by citizens of Somalia.” Although Rizzo’s own aunt and uncle later pleaded guilty to illegally voting in the election, there was no evidence of any wrongdoing by Somali refugees. But that didn’t prevent Kobach from repeating the claim in an op-ed for The Washington Post. “The Somalis, who didn’t speak English, were coached to vote for Rizzo by an interpreter at the polling place,” Kobach insisted. “Rizzo ended up winning by one vote.” The message from the state’s top voting official was clear: The newcomers from Somalia were being used to subvert American democracy.
On October 14, while federal agents were still busy searching the weapons-laden storage unit belonging to Gavin Wright, the FBI contacted Michael Utz, Garden City’s chief of police. Utz had been briefed on the case the day before, so when the bureau notified him that it had made its final two arrests, he was ready to move. First, he called together his staff and told them that an FBI field officer would be speaking to the Somali community about the planned attack later that day. Then he picked up the phone and called Mursal Naleye, whom he knew was respected by his fellow refugees.
“Hey, why don’t you come down to the police department—you, with all of the leaders from the community,” Utz said. “We need to have a meeting right away.”
Utz had been interacting with refugee families since he was a rookie officer in the 1980s. “I mean, we’re all immigrants in some fashion,” he told me. There were cultural differences, of course, but he had found that if he learned and respected those differences, the job got easier for him and more effective for the people he was sworn to protect. So when he was named chief in 2015, Utz organized monthly meetings with a group of leaders from the local African community. Most Somalis still respect the clan system, deferring to elders and members of honored families to make collective decisions. While Utz conferred with clan leaders, police officers played soccer with the kids and volunteers from a local nonprofit asked the women about social services their families might need. The clan leaders were wary at first, or perhaps just unconvinced of the sincerity of the gesture. But after nearly a year of outreach, Utz had managed to win over some support. He had also met Naleye, who had been promoted by Tyson to train new Somali workers and served as president of a community center that assisted African immigrants.
Utz wanted Naleye and other leaders of the community to learn of the planned attack directly from him, rather than hearing about it on the news. “It was important that we, as a department, reach out to the folks that live in the two apartment complexes,” Utz says. “I felt that they needed to know what was going on. My concern was the fear factor: people not going to work, not going to school, and wanting to get out of Garden City.”
Naleye was troubled by the call. Though he’s only 27, he exudes a calm, unflappable air. It takes a lot to make him nervous, but something about Utz’s urgency communicated the seriousness of the situation. He asked the chief what time he wanted to meet. “I need you here by one o’clock,” Utz replied.
Naleye checked his watch. It was almost 20 past noon. His anxiety grew. No one trusts the police in Somalia. There, a call like this would most likely be a trap—a setup to demand a bribe, the prelude to a kidnapping, or worse.
But Naleye knew Utz. “OK, Chief, I trust you,” he said. “We’ll make it happen.”
In a rush, Naleye started dialing, telling everyone he reached to be ready in five minutes. He picked up several people in his car and told the rest to meet at the African Shop, a few blocks west of the Garden Spot Apartments. The store sells comforts from Somalia—bolts of cloth for dresses, spices, and packaged sweets—but in the back, an old storage area has been converted to a kind of meeting place, still open and breezy enough to fill with the stench from the Brookover Feed Yard when the wind is right. Most days, the room is abuzz with the sound of international soccer games on television and an espresso maker blasting steam. But now, Naleye commanded silence. “There’s an emergency meeting,” he told everyone.
“Why do we have to go to the police department?” one leader asked in Somali.
“Is something wrong?” asked another.
“I don’t really know,” Naleye told them. “But don’t be nervous. Don’t be afraid. Nothing is going to happen to you guys.”
At one o’clock, Naleye arrived at the police station with a van-load of clan leaders. With little time to change, the men arrived in street clothes—tight-fitting t-shirts and jeans for the younger men, the elders in slacks, with embroidered koofiyads on their heads. As each entered the station, Utz was there to shake hands and welcome them. Once everyone was assembled in the conference room, the chief chose his words carefully.
“There has been a threat against your part of our community,” he said. “All three suspects are in custody—and there is nobody else involved. You are safe.” He told the group that an FBI field officer would explain the nature of the threat to them, so they could share it with their families and friends. But he also wanted them to gather the community together the next day, so they could hear directly from the police that they were going to receive additional protection. Utz had already contacted school officials, who would be sending counselors to classrooms and the apartment complex. And he had asked one of his police officers who is Somali to translate a letter into his native language explaining that the meeting would be a show of support. Officers would be going door to door to distribute the letter, Utz told the clan leaders.
Clan leaders were stunned when the FBI briefed them on the planned attack. “If you’re a Muslim,” one Crusader had said, “I’m going to enjoy shooting you in the head.”
Not wanting to alarm them, the FBI officer shared only the most basic details of the plot. But in the coming days, the clan leaders and their families would learn many graphic details from the media and the criminal complaint submitted to the court. One evening at G&G Home Center, the plotters had pulled up Google Maps on an office computer and begun dropping pins at various locations for possible attacks. Each pin was given the label “cockroaches.” The men then discussed what kind of attack they might carry out, including kidnapping and raping the wives and daughters of refugee workers, setting fire to their mosque during prayer time, and even shooting them with arrows dipped in pig’s blood.
“The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim,” Patrick Stein had told his fellow Crusaders. “If you’re a Muslim, I’m going to enjoy shooting you in the head.”
Now, after hearing from Utz and the FBI, the clan leaders were stunned. But the respect that Chief Utz had shown by calling them together had prevented a panic. “If they wait until the news says something and they don’t let us know, people would get shocked and just run away,” Naleye says. Instead, he was able to leave the meeting and head to the Tyson plant. By now, everyone would be arriving for the night shift.
Abdukadin Yusuf was less than an hour into the B shift at the Tyson plant, but it was time for him to take a break from the rib line and pray. Yusuf has worked at Tyson for a decade, transferring to Garden City in 2007 after almost a year in Emporia. He refuses to talk about his time in Emporia; he prefers to focus on how much better everything has been since he arrived in Garden City. He is grateful to Tyson for allowing him to move there. “It’s a good company,” he says. “They take care of the workers.” At more than a million square feet, the Garden City plant is one of the world’s largest slaughterhouses—processing some 6,000 cattle every day. The morning shift is nearly all Hispanic workers, and the afternoon shift, roughly 600 people, is entirely Somali and Burmese. Yusuf, after a decade of working in slaughterhouses, earns $40,000 per year.
On the rib line, men grasp old-fashioned meat hooks in their left hands, pulling racks of beef ribs onto individual cutting trays, where they execute a few quick cuts with a straight knife in the other hand, removing excess meat before returning the racks to the conveyers. The meat is often tough, and has to be pried from the bone using the hook and free fingers on the knife hand. Yusuf had been working at Tyson for only a few months when he started experiencing stiffness and numbness in his hands. He tried wearing gloves to keep his hands warm and limber in the freezing cold of the cutting-room floor, but it was no use. The tendons in his middle and ring fingers on his right hand were soon so swollen that they would click and lock in a closed position—a condition known as trigger finger.
Despite all this, Yusuf insists that he loves working for Tyson. For refugees like him, the dangers of the production line pale in comparison to life in Somalia—with its clan warfare, piracy, government corruption, and terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab. Besides, the company paid for the surgery on his hands. His supervisors gave him time off to go to Kenya twice—the first time to marry his fiancée, Ifrah Farah, the second to finalize her visa application and bring her to Garden City. The plant manager had hired leaders like Naleye to train workers to prevent repetitive stress injuries. Most importantly to Yusuf, the company allows Muslim workers to take breaks according to their prayer schedule. “The supervisors let us work it out ourselves,” he says. “There are no problems about the breaks.”
Now, as Yusuf returned to work from his prayer break, he noticed Naleye talking to several plant supervisors in the lunch room. Another Somali worker told him about the attacks, and they went into their supervisor’s office to watch the FBI press conference on his television. “We stand in the office and see it,” Yusuf says. Acting U.S. Attorney Tom Beall stood before an American flag and the seal of the Justice Department and announced that an eight-month FBI investigation had taken agents “deep into a hidden culture of hatred and violence.” He explained that three men had intended to detonate car bombs, one of them less than 50 feet from the one-bedroom apartment where Yusuf and his wife live. The men, Beall said, harbored “hatred for Muslims, individuals of Somali descent, and immigrants.”
Yusuf had lived in Garden City for nearly a decade, and had never once felt any hint of resentment, much less a threat of violence. Who were these men who wanted to kill him and his wife and everyone they knew? “Why would they do this?” he demanded, his hands cramping, fingers locking against his palms. “Why would they do this?”
Seeing the reaction from Yusuf and other Somali workers, the plant managers turned to Naleye for help. “Go department to department, and talk to the people,” they said. “Tell them they are safe. Don’t be afraid.”
Yusuf’s wife, Ifrah, was at home. He wanted to leave to be with her. But Naleye was already spreading the word to the workers that the police were guarding the apartment complex. They should all finish the shift, and not lose a day’s wages, too.
When the shift ended at 11:45 that night, Yusuf and other workers found the police waiting for them, lined up outside the plant in their cruisers. Other officers were stationed at the Garden Spot. By the time Yusuf got home, it was midnight, and he woke Ifrah up to talk. She had seen the police lights flashing outside earlier that evening, but didn’t go to the door when police officers had knocked, handing out flyers to explain the situation. Now, as Yusuf talked her through what was happening, her fears only grew. She wanted to pack their minivan and leave Garden City right away, driving until they reached Minnesota, where Yusuf had family.
“Nobody is above the law,” Yusuf reassured her. “Only God knows when it is time for us to die.”
That night, they lay in bed together but barely slept. They rose with the sun to pray, and then Yusuf returned to bed, tired after working the night shift. Ifrah went to the meeting that afternoon, when Chief Utz arrived. Hundreds of people—Somalis, Burmese, Mexicans, Malaysians, Vietnamese, Sudanese—gathered in the large parking lot on the north side of Mary Street.
“The individuals involved in this plot are all in custody,” Utz assured them, his words translated by the Somali police officer. “You are safe, and we will continue to make every effort to make sure you are safe.”
Utz told refugees they would be protected—as members of a nation built by refugees. “You are safe in Garden City,” he said, “and safe in the United States of America.”
Utz started to introduce several representatives from the FBI team who had foiled the plot, as well as the county sheriff, whose office has jurisdiction over the Tyson plant. But before he could finish, several Somali residents pressed forward. They knew and trusted the chief and wanted to hear directly from him. Why had these men chosen them? Why were they targeted?
Utz had decided to be as straight with the Somalis as possible. There was no point in pretending that there were any motives other than hate and bigotry. But he also wanted them to know that he and his officers were there to protect them—that they were members not just of the community, but of a nation that had been created by immigrants and refugees.
“The only answer I can give you is that they wanted to attack your religious beliefs,” Utz told the assembled residents. “But you need to know that whether you are an immigrant or not, you are all Garden Citians. Some of you have said you can’t go to your mosque to pray, or that you can’t go to your homes because you are afraid. But we and the sheriff and the FBI are here to say that you are safe in Garden City, and safe in the United States of America.”
When Stein appeared before a judge on October 21, he rocked back and forth in his chair at the defendant’s table as Anthony Mattivi, assistant U.S. attorney for Kansas, presented the government’s case. Mattivi reminded the court that Stein could be heard on FBI recordings vowing that the apartment bombing would be simply the first of a series of attacks he intended to carry out as a response to the election, now just two weeks away. Mattivi read another text from Stein to the undercover agent, regarding Hillary Clinton. “If she was to be elected,” Stein wrote, the bombing “would be very soon after the election, ‘game on.’ ”
Ed Robinson, Stein’s attorney, countered with his fake news defense: His client’s fears about Somalis were a byproduct of screeds on Facebook and conspiracy theories not only from right-wing web sites, but from Donald Trump himself. At a rally in August, Trump had warned supporters in Maine that efforts to resettle Somali refugees had created “an enclave of immigrants with high unemployment” that was straining state resources, and quoted a Washington Times article claiming that this was creating “a rich pool of potential recruiting targets for Islamist terrorist groups.” The United States, he said, was accepting “hundreds of thousands of refugees, and they’re coming from among the most dangerous territories and countries of anywhere in the world. A practice which has to stop.”
Even after the arrests in Kansas, Trump continued to issue dire warnings about the influx of Somali refugees as a regular part of his stump speech. In the final days of the campaign, Trump spoke to a crowd in Minneapolis, the city with the nation’s highest number of Somali refugees. “You’ve seen firsthand the problems caused with faulty refugee vetting,” he said, “with very large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state without your knowledge, without your support or approval.” He claimed that “large numbers” of Somalis were “joining ISIS and spreading their extremist views all over our country.” He described how Dahir Adan, a 22-year-old Somali college student who had come to Minnesota as a refugee, had stabbed ten people at the Crossroads Center shopping mall in St. Cloud, before being shot dead by an off-duty police officer. ISIS later claimed credit for the attack. “It’s happening, it’s happening, you see it happening, you read about it,” Trump told the crowd.
Whatever impact Trump’s rhetoric had on the Crusaders, it has little basis in fact. A study conducted by Nora Ellingsen, a Harvard Law School student, identified a total of 97 terrorism suspects arrested as part of FBI counterterrorism investigations over the past two years. Only two involved refugees from countries on Trump’s list of majority-Muslim countries. (Ellingsen omitted two violent attacks carried out by Somali refugees in 2016—the mall stabbings by Dahir Adan and another mass stabbing by Abdul Razak Ali Artan in Columbus, Ohio—because in both cases the perpetrators were killed rather than arrested.) “Since January 2015,” Ellingsen concludes, “the FBI has arrested more anti-immigrant American citizens plotting violent attacks on Muslims within the United States than it has refugees, or former refugees, from any banned country. The empirical data indicate that foreign nationals simply aren’t plotting attacks within U.S. borders at the same rate as U.S. citizens. Indeed, the rates aren’t anywhere close to comparable.”
Over that same span of time, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there was a “near-tripling of anti-Muslim hate groups—from 34 in 2015 to 101 last year.” Much of the increase has come from the III% movement, so named because its adherents say that it took just 3 percent of American colonists taking up arms against British rule to start the Revolutionary War. Stein was part of a Facebook group called the III% Security Force of Kansas, and his username for an encrypted communication app with the FBI undercover agent was “orkinmanIII%”—a reference not only to the movement but to his plan to “exterminate” Muslims, whom he considered “cockroaches.”
FBI statistics indicate that hate crimes against Muslims have risen by 67 percent— the largest single-year increase since the September 11 attacks.
Miles Evans, the state commander of the Kansas Flatlanders Militia, which is part of the III% movement, confirms that Stein and Wright had contacted him about joining the group. But Evans insists that he turned them down. “They were just very extreme with the way they go about things,” he told the Kansas City Star. “Too extreme for us.” After the Crusaders were arrested, another militia called the Kansas Security Force posted a message on its Facebook page: “Our group is not at all about HATE, or by any means about extremism. Should any one feel differently about this please leave.”
Despite such disavowals, FBI statistics indicate that hate crimes against Muslims rose by 67 percent in 2015—the largest single-year increase since the September 11 attacks. In a new report on the rise of anti-Muslim groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center describes 2016 as “an unprecedented year for hate. The country saw a resurgence of white nationalism that imperils the racial progress we’ve made, along with the rise of a president whose policies reflect the values of white nationalists.”
In court, the judge denied Stein’s bail request.
Mursal Naleye says he still feels optimistic about life in Garden City. He sees progress all around him—especially since the bomb plot was uncovered. “Nobody moved out,” he says. Every family has decided to stay; in fact, the response by Chief Utz and the police made Somalis feel even more welcome. “From that day, it opened their minds,” Naleye says. “They don’t have to be scared of the police no more. From that day, we started monthly meetings.”
In a sense, the bomb plot backfired. The bridge between the Somali community and the police force—as well as fears over Trump’s proposed travel ban—has actually encouraged Somali workers at the Tyson plant to bring their families over from Somalia. “If you live in a city and you don’t really like it, you don’t bring your family,” Naleye says. “But if you really like it, and you want to be here, you start bringing your people out.” The city has continued its support, allowing residents of the apartment complex to open an English-language training school in one unit and an urgent-care clinic in another. “We feel like we have people helping us,” Naleye says.
The planned attack on the apartment complex, Naleye insists, was not simply an outrage against Somalis, or even Muslims. “There’s a lot of different communities there,” he says. “There’s Hispanic, other African people, Asian people—Vietnamese, Chinese, Burmese, Indian. We’re not going to say we were the only target, as Somalis. We’re not going to say that. We were all targeted.” He points to the FBI estimate that the bombs would have been large enough to blow up surrounding houses, many occupied by older white residents or white families with small children. “Thanks to God, nothing happened,” he says.
Still, there are other signs that Garden City is not as progressive and cosmopolitan as its leaders imagine. On Election Day, only 24 hours before the Crusaders were planning to massacre hundreds of local residents, voters in Garden City and the surrounding county turned out in record numbers—and they voted for Trump over Clinton by a margin of more than two to one. In the four local counties where whites are now a minority, Trump still captured roughly two-thirds of the popular vote.
After Trump’s inauguration, one of the accused conspirators—he was not identified in the article—contacted a reporter for The Guardian. After professing his innocence, he did admit to feeling “encouraged” by Trump’s victory. Stein meanwhile applied for reconsideration of his detention—but was denied a second hearing after authorities at the Butler County Detention Facility uncovered love letters he had been writing to a prison guard. A subsequent search of Stein’s cell phone revealed plans for “a small man team” to cut power to the jail and overtake the facility. Stein and his co-defendants are scheduled to stand trial in federal court in Wichita on June 13.
As for President Trump, he has made good on his promise to attempt to block immigration from Somalia and five other Muslim-majority nations. Although his policies have been tied up in court, he remains committed to instituting a 90-day ban on people from those countries, as well as a 120-day ban on all refugees, regardless of their place of origin. But Somalis hoping to enter the United States often come directly from refugee camps, where they have spent years undergoing rigorous screening. The American people, it would seem, have little cause for fear.
Over President’s Day weekend, Naleye organized a party to honor the election of a different president—Mohamed A. Mohamed of Somalia. Mohamed’s ascent is a parable of the promise and possibility of America’s refugee program. In 1988, Mohamed, then a secretary in the Somali embassy in Washington, was granted asylum to avoid returning to Somalia’s civil war. He earned degrees in history and political science from American universities, went on to work on several local political campaigns, and eventually landed a job in the Buffalo office of the New York Department of Transportation, enforcing nondiscrimination requirements among state contractors. He returned to Somalia in 2010, served briefly as prime minister, and had now been chosen as Somalia’s first progressive president in three decades. Naleye points to Mohamed’s success as evidence of what an enlightened refugee policy could achieve.
At the celebration, in a rented party space in a strip mall on West Mary Street, posters of Mohamed and a large Somali flag were taped to the wall. Under the glare of fluorescent lights, the party started quietly, with everyone dressed in their formal clothes and stiffly sharing a potluck of traditional Somali foods eaten on paper plates. But near midnight, as the older members of the community went home, the younger Somalis turned up the portable DJ machine, its lone speaker pumping African club songs and flashing multicolor lights. Ahmed Ali, an exuberant young man with a quick smile, started ushering everyone onto the dance floor. “It’s a new president, a new hope, a new era!” Ali shouted over the pounding bass. He elbowed Naleye toward the edge of the bouncing circle, where he fell into clapping with everyone else.
And suddenly, in a strip mall on the very street where the Crusaders planned to unleash their grim attack, the bobbing and clapping turned into joyous dancing, the tile floor swaying under leather shoes and bare feet with hennaed toes. The dancers now stepped, two at a time, to the center of the circle, the women gripping and swinging the hems of their dresses, the men flapping their sports jackets and passing a hand-knit scarf that read I LOVE SOMALIA, waving it like a flag. Naleye himself slid to the center of the circle, smiling shyly at the applause, and then shook his hips. For the moment he felt light, buoyed by hope and, perhaps, the sense of a second chance. He should be asleep, he thought, but who could sleep now? He was wide awake, there in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of America, wide awake and dancing.
This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a non-profit investigative news organization.
Ted Genoways is a contributing editor at the New Republic and author of the forthcoming book, This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Farm.