The Building Community Resilience Pilot Program was launched by the U.S. attorney’s office in Minneapolis in September, following a February summit at the White House in which the city was named as one of three where pilot programs would focus on countering violent extremism (CVE).
But almost immediately, Muslim and liberal organizations spoke out against it, saying the outreach programs being planned would actually be used to gather intelligence on the communities they were meant to serve.
“There is a great deal of suspicion in our community,” said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “They really feel like this is a toxic thing.”
The latest efforts are designed to engage young people in Minnesota’s Somali community — which numbers about 30,000 people, the largest population in the U.S. — to prevent them from becoming radicalized and joining with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, whether to fight there or to be trained for terrorist attacks back in the U.S.
It’s a challenge Minnesota’s Somali community has faced before — in 2007 the Somali Islamist group al-Shabab persuaded more than two dozen people from the Twin Cities to travel to Somalia to fight.
More recently, a group of 10 young Somalis were charged with terrorism-related crimes, accused of taking part in a broad conspiracy to provide material support to the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL.
But members of the Muslim community have taken issue with being singled out for CVE programing, with community members pleading for more after-school programs for children or social services programs for adults without strings that lead back to law enforcement.
“If there is commingling, that creates mistrust,” said Mohamud Noor, director of the Confederation of the Somali Community in Minnesota. “Without the community support, we can’t beat the challenge we face in terms of recruitment.”
Mr. Noor has been working to develop a community center that would cater to the city’s Somali community as a one-stop shop for city and youth services.
He questions why Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities — which received $500,000 from a private foundation to start up a Somali youth mentoring program — was awarded funds when it has little experience with the Somali community. He said it will be difficult for the group to build inroads into an already-suspicious community and questions why a group with established ties was not chosen instead.
“When you’re picking somebody who looks different than them and then says ‘I want to talk to you about radicalization,’ that is a red flag. They will run away,” Mr. Noor said.
Ben Petok, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Minneapolis, said officials worked closely with Somali community leaders in the Twin Cities to develop the program. For those who may still have doubts, officials are continuing to dialogue to better explain the program, he said.
“Building Community Resilience was designed in close partnership with a wide cross-section of Somali community leaders, including Imams, elected officials, youth, elders, women, etc.,” Mr. Petok wrote in an email response to questions. “Those who have played a role in designing Building Community Resilience have said repeatedly that there is no component of this that involves spying or intelligence gathering.”
For their part, Gail Vold Greco, a spokeswoman for Big Brothers Big Sisters, said the organization has heard from dozens of individuals interested in working as mentors for the program — which is set to launch next year.
In addition to the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, about $400,000 in federal and privately funded grants will also be distributed through the Minneapolis CVE program, which is being overseen by the nonprofit group Youthprise.
In January, Youthprise plans to solicit program proposals, and by February it will announce the grant awards, according to spokeswoman Karen Kingsley. The grants are expected to fund community engagement and capacity building for Somali-led community organizations.
“Youthprise has met with a number of people in the Somali community to gather their input and hear their concerns as we are drafting the Request for Proposals for the Somali Youth Development Fund, our part of the Building Community Resilience initiative,” Ms. Kingsley wrote in an email statement when asked how Youthprise is working to overcome issues of mistrust between the Somali community and the federal government.
“We are learning from and engaging with leaders in the Somali community, including Somali youth, which is a common practice for us,” she said.
Mr. Noor said he is waiting to see the requirements for the grants before he decides whether he might apply.
Mr. Hussein said other groups have expressed concern to CAIR privately that they don’t want to be associated with the grants for fear their programs will be used for surveillance or that they will lose community support for fear of spying.
“Anyone who receives that money, they could be accused of being spies or undercover law enforcement,” Mr. Hussein said. “If they take the money, people assume that something is going on where the FBI has forced them to do it.”
Such suspicions aren’t all based in paranoia or falsehood.
As the FBI was investigating the cases of Somali men who left to fight with al-Shabab in 2009, the agency directed agents in Minneapolis and five other U.S. cities to use community outreach with Somali groups as cover to gather intelligence on terrorist recruiting efforts and on people likely vulnerable to being radicalized, according to a report this year from the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
The FBI’s Minneapolis field office told the Tribune that they declined to follow the spying directive, fearful that doing so would damage relationships with the community.
Michael German, a former FBI agent who now works for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, said that if the goal of federal law enforcement is to gain trust from community groups, it would help more to redouble social services and police efforts to serve those communities, not monitor them.
“What they see when the police officer comes into my community is ‘He is not there to serve me as a member of the public, but he is there to police me,’” Mr. German said.
The Brennan Center is one of more than a dozen organizations that raised concern about the use of CVE programs before the pilot programs were announced due to concerns of stereotyping and abusive surveillance and monitoring practices.
Trust from the Somali community will come in time, when law enforcement and social services agencies dedicate resources to solving crimes and rendering aid, Mr. German said.
“If we believe the availability of mental heath counseling is one of the solutions to the extremism problem, I’m all about making mental health counseling available,” he said. “We can do that without talking about it as a Muslim community problem or an extremism problem.”