Last year, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation began looking into the case of disappearing young Somali men who were allegedly being radicalized in Minnesota they met resistance from the community. From anecdotal accounts, it is not that the community was harboring potential terrorists, or their recruiters, but that people had there a legitimate fear of speaking to law enforcement of any kind, be they local or federal authorities.
The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN) began getting calls about harassment from federal investigators. While the FBI has made no comment on these allegations, Asma Lori, who works with CAIR-MN, says, “Students reported that immediately after class they were accosted by federal agents.” Lori says that the approach of men in suits to students who already felt that they stood out on campus left them humiliated and embarrassed.
Over the course of last year, CAIR-MN held sessions in which they talked to Somali Minnesotans on their interaction with FBI agents. Lori says that CAIR-MN encourages the Somali community to cooperate with the FBI, but to do so within their rights. A video “Know Your Rights” produced by CAIR-MN and translated into Somali has been largely popular in the community as it shows how to interact with the FBI.
For instance, Somalis (and other Muslims) are advised to have a lawyer present when being questioned by an agent.
She argues that intimidation by not just the FBI, but by local law enforcement has made several people in the community feel compelled to talk even when they had nothing to report. “Unfortunately, some of the people were later charged with lying to federal agents,” she says.
In tight-knit communities, word spreads around, and it was not long before members of the Minnesotan Muslim community were hearing about other Muslim FBI informants in other parts of the country. Lori says that “these kind of tactics are likely to break trust.”
Qasim Bashir, a youth community organizer with the Confederation of Somali Community (CSCM) says that within his community he is not certain that people even know the difference between the FBI and local police. “I have heard of cases where a Somali who cannot speak English has been arrested for obstructing justice.” Negative experiences like this have made some Somali Americans hesitant to cooperate with law enforcement.
But the FBI is keen to change this. In an e-mail interview, E.K. Wilson, an FBI agent in Minneapolis says, “There is a general and long standing mistrust of the government and specifically the FBI that is rooted in the experience of many Somalis from their days as refugees dealing with corrupt or oppressive security forces overseas.” To allay these fears, the FBI is now directly meeting with members of the Somali community. “We meet in roundtable group settings with religious leaders, community leaders, elders, and mosque leadership,” he wrote. “Minneapolis FBI Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Ralph Boelter has been on Somali TV and Somali radio to be interviewed and to field questions from the general community.”
Saeed Fahil, the executive director of CSCM, organized one such forum. He described the December meeting, which was closed to the press, as a positive first step as young Somalis expressed their grievances and stereotypes towards the FBI. He says that the radicalization of young Muslims is a real threat to the community, but argued that “there are many challenges for young adults regardless of their ethnicity. Many of them are vulnerable and rebellion is a defense mechanism.”
To engage youth, the CSCM has a youth diversion program which organizes afterschool programs that attempt to keep Somali teens away from the streets and negative influences. These programs include: several basketball tournaments including a women’s touernament; plays written and acted by teens on health, political and social issues; and education.
Nimco Ahmed, a political activist in Minnesota took a citizen’s academy class with the FBI so that she could understand how the agency worked. “I was always under the assumption that they [the FBI] could make random arrests,” Ahmed said. “But following this class, I found out that just like other law enforcement agencies, they [FBI] have to follow the law… they have to do a thorough investigation.”
Bashir who works with Somali youth everyday says that only time will tell if the FBI will build positive relationships with the Somali community. “They [FBI] need to show that they are sincere by continuing these initiatives. To gain this long-term trust, they have to recognize that they are working with a community that has faced trauma in their motherland and hostility as new immigrants in Minnesota.”