If you get your news from the headlines, you can be excused for thinking that “Minnesota men” pose a special risk of taking up the terrorist jihad at home and abroad. As the Wall Street Journal reported this past April, for example, “U.S. charges six Minnesota men with trying to join ISIS.” The “Minnesota men” featured in such headlines are almost invariably drawn from Minnesota’s swelling population of Somali Muslim immigrants. The state—mostly the metropolitan Twin Cities area—is home to 35,000 such immigrants, the largest Somali population in North America.
Starting in the 1990s, the State Department directed thousands of refugees from Somalia’s civil war to Minnesota. As Kelly Riddell pointed out in the Washington Times this past February, in Minnesota these refugees “can take advantage of some of America’s most generous welfare and charity programs.” Riddell quoted Professor Ahmed Samatar of Macalester College in St. Paul: “Minnesota is exceptional in so many ways but it’s the closest thing in the United States to a true social democratic state.” After a dip in 2008, the inflow of Somalis has continued unabated and augmented by Somalis from other states. If it takes a village, Minnesota has what it takes.
Unfortunately, according to a September report of the House Homeland Security Committee task force on combating terrorist and foreign fighter travel, Minnesota also leads the country in contributing foreign fighters to ISIS. Reviewing the public cases of more than 250 Americans who had traveled to join ISIS, the task force found that 26 percent of them came from Minnesota. When it comes to exports to ISIS, we’re number one.
In a presentation to Minnesota’s National Security Society last month, FBI Minneapolis chief division counsel Kyle Loven conveyed the impression that his office is devoting substantial resources to terrorism-related issues. “We have four national security squads working this thing,” he said.
The April charges against six Minnesota men represented the culmination of a 10-month FBI investigation. The charges and the FBI affidavit setting forth the basis for them strongly suggest the existence of an ISIS recruiting network aimed at or operating in the Twin Cities. The FBI affidavit details the recruitment of individuals and provision of assistance to those who want to leave Minnesota to fight abroad. According to an unnamed local FBI informant, ISIS recruiter Abdi Nur (formerly of Minnesota) “may have a trusted contact in Mexico who could provide false passports to those members of the conspiracy interested in traveling from the Twin Cities to Syria from Mexico.” (Nur hasn’t been heard from recently and may have been killed.)
Somali Minnesotans have been the focus of law enforcement concern for nearly 10 years.
The Department of Justice acknowledges that since 2006, “overseas terror organizations” have targeted Twin Cities residents to join al Shabaab (an al Qaeda-allied group in Somalia) and ISIS. Over five years ending in 2011, Operation Rhino targeted al Shabaab recruiting in Minnesota and resulted in the indictment of 20 individuals. Since 2013, according to the Department of Justice, ISIS has targeted “Twin Cities residents” (i.e., Somalis). The Minneapolis division of the FBI and local law enforcement authorities devote substantial resources to deterring and interrupting the recruitment of Minnesota Somalis.
In the case of the six men, law enforcement benefited from an informant. In his October presentation, the FBI’s Loven queried how long law enforcement will be able to count on such informants. Loven highlighted the increasing difficulty of tracking the radicalization of individuals online given the evolution of social media and the growing use of encrypted communications. “We are behind the eight ball when it comes to online communication,” he said.
Even before the massacres committed by ISIS in Paris, local law enforcement authorities feared that Minnesota’s Somali immigrants might take up the cause locally. In February, al Shabaab released a video identifying the Mall of America as a terror target. Both Minneapolis and the Mall of America lie within Hennepin County and the jurisdiction of the county’s sheriff, Rich Stanek. Stanek commented at the time: “We train, we exercise, we plan and prepare incessantly hoping something bad never happens but knowing full well each and every day across this country, world, it does. But we are prepared.”