Are Somali-Americans More Likely To Be Radicalized?

Some experts in the U.S. say Somali-American young people are at greater risk of religious radicalization. Host Michel Martin speaks with homeland security advisor Mohamed Elibiary, and Mark Brunswick of Minnesota's Star Tribune about homegrown terrorism.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, a special court at The Hague has upheld a 50 year sentence for Liberia's former president Charles Taylor for crimes against humanity. So we thought this was a good day to hear from an international human rights lawyer who's been called the dictator hunter for bringing cases like that to the International Criminal Court. So we'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

First, though, we want to look at why the deadly mall attack in Kenya is raising questions about radicalism here in the U.S. That siege was orchestrated by the Somali militant group al-Shabab. Kenya's foreign minister has said that two or three Americans were involved in the attack. U.S. officials are still looking into that claim. They say there's no definitive proof of that. But our next guests say Americans have been recruited into al-Shabab, and they've gone off to places like Somalia to fight with the group. We're going to hear from reporter Mark Brunswick. He's with the Star Tribune in Minnesota, and he's written about recruitment efforts aimed at Somali Americans living there. Also with us once again is Mohamed Elibiary. He is the founder of Lone Star Intelligence, and he works to stop American Muslims from joining terrorist organizations. Welcome to you both. Welcome back in your case, Mohamed. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

MOHAMED ELIBIARY: Thank you, Michel.

MARK BRUNSWICK: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now let me start with you, Mr. Elibiary, because you've told us that among Muslims in the U.S. - among Muslim groups in the U.S., Somali Americans are particularly susceptible to recruitment into extremist groups or particular targets of recruitment. Why is that?

ELIBIARY: Well, because they come from a tribal society. So familial and clannish connections to the old country are actually a lot more prevalent and strong despite them residing several thousand miles away here in the U.S.

MARTIN: You're saying it was not just terrorist groups that target this particular community, but just your - not run-of-the-mill is not the right phrase - but you know what I mean, just criminal gangs, as well?

ELIBIARY: That is correct, like, especially in Minneapolis there has been a history of Somali youth who have actually entered different gangs. So most Americans are familiar with the Bloods and the Crips and that kind of thing. Somalis have ended up in similar organizations.

MARTIN: Mark Brunswick, you've been writing about this for some time now. Why is this? What are you hearing from people there about why this is going on? What are some of the techniques that they use?

BRUNSWICK: Well, there are parallels to recruitment for al-Shabab and religious extremism. With criminal gangs, there really is a sense of disenfranchisement, particularly among 20-year-old Somali men. Some of them have returned to the United States as infants after spending time in refugee camps. Surprisingly, Somali girls seem to prosper in the United States, and Minnesota in particular. But the boys, when they reach teenage and their early 20's, many of them seem to feel left out, and that leaves them very vulnerable to a number of things - religious extremism or gang involvement.

MARTIN: You were telling us that Minnesota has the largest Somali population in the United States, in the Twin Cities area particular. Why is that?

BRUNSWICK: Well, when the Somalis started coming to the United States, they had sponsoring organizations like Lutheran Social Services and Catholic charities, which are very aggressive in Minnesota. They did the same thing with Hmong refugees following the Vietnam War. So, surprisingly, there is - probably 30 percent of the United States Somali population resides in Minnesota, probably about anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000. There's probably 100,000 Somalis in the United States, and many of them live in Minnesota.

MARTIN: I want to hear about that video that you wrote about recently. You said that there was this 40 minute recruiting video that was actually posted on YouTube in August, and it didn't create much of a stir at the time. But now people are looking at it again in the wake of this terrible, you know, episode in Nairobi. Tell us a little bit about that, Mark, if you would.

BRUNSWICK: Well, the video is pretty slick. It's much like you might see from any military organization recruiting a 20-something guy demographic - guns, good times and a sense of patriotism. It features three Minnesotans who have subsequently died in 2009. So it's an old video footage, but repackaged. And at the time, it made a bit of a wave in Minnesota because it was unusual. But it's clear now that it was directed specifically, probably, I guess, at Minnesota youth, in a sort of a new marketing campaign. And al-Shabab seemed to rebrand itself in some ways, particularly in Minnesota.

MARTIN: It's titled "Minnesota's Martyrs: The Path to Paradise," and it features three young Minnesotans who travel to Somalia to fight for al-Shabab. I just want to quote from your piece where it quotes Troy Kastigar, who's one of the young men who died, and it says - this is the best place to be, honestly. I can only tell you that you have the best of dreams, you eat the best of food, you are with the best of brothers and sisters who came here for the sake of Allah. If you guys only knew how much fun we have over here, this is the real Disneyland. You need to come here and join us. But the video also makes the point that they all died. So what's the appeal there?

BRUNSWICK: Well, it's a little hard to understand, but it's martyrdom. There - featured at the end - there's actually an English rap extolling the virtues of their martyrdom. So in the video death for what you believe in is not considered something that would turn somebody away, it might actually entice you.

MARTIN: Mohamed Elibiary, could you talk a little bit about that.

ELIBIARY: For many of these youth that are searching out for a purpose in life, the attractiveness of actually having a clear goal that's celebrated, living a purposeful life in other words, is actually more attractive than them kind of seeing that their life is at a dead end or they can't see success past that age gap, that was mentioned by the other gentleman, from their late teenage to their early 20's.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking about recruitment efforts that seem to be aimed by international terrorist organizations that seem to be aimed at particular communities. In this case, we're talking about Somali Americans, mainly in the Twin Cities area.

We're speaking Mark Brunswick, reporter for the Star Tribune in Minnesota, who's been reporting on this. We're also speaking with homeland security expert Mohamed Elibiary. Mr. Elibiary, could you pick up a little bit on something Mark Brunswick talked about earlier, which is the gender issue? He was saying that the young women from - Somali Americans who resettled there seem to be thriving but some of the young men seemed kind of lost or they're sort of hitting - they sort of seem to hit these brick roads right around adolescence and their early adulthood. Does that track with what you see, and why do you think that is?

ELIBIARY: Actually, yes, Mark is absolutely right. We've seen that pattern play out many times over. You see that - especially, also in the Minneapolis-Somali community -initially there was a very high concentration of single mothers. So as these kids would grow up, the daughters might have a model to follow in their mothers and grandmothers, but a lot of these young boys as they entered adolescence did not find a male role model and went searching for the camaraderie that a lot of adolescent young men try to find, whether it's in constructive things like boys clubs or sports, or it's destructive activities like gangs and delinquency and, of course, al-Shabab.

MARTIN: So what do you think should be done about this, Mohamed Elibiary? What are some of your strategies for addressing this?

ELIBIARY: So the al-Shabab recruitment issue is over five years old now. So some good progress has already been made. One of the holes that needed to be plugged initially very early on was an increase by the Minneapolis Police Department and St. Paul Police Department in community policing. So if you have, for example, a lot of single mothers led households, these police departments actually put forward, for example, female police officers who could end up partnering with the mothers.

That helped to get over a lot of the heavy federal security relationship with these communities so that those families started to see that law enforcement could be there to help interconnect them with social services, so that they see the recruitment of American Somali youth as actually al-Shabab stealing these kids from their families. So the families and the government are on the same side trying to achieve the same ends as opposed to the alternative model of perceptions where families might fear that their kids might end up just going to jail for looking at YouTube videos.

MARTIN: Mark Brunswick talk a little bit about that if you would - in fact, I should have started there - which is, how are people reacting? How are the people you speak with reacting to these latest developments and news that there may indeed have been, you know, Americans from the community who were drawn into this - we don't know that that's confirmed by the way - but how are people reacting to this news, these allegations?

BRUNSWICK: It really is that there's a mechanism in place that wasn't there the previous two waves. The community speaks out - the Somali community is very animated, very entrepreneurial and not afraid to speak out. One of the things that we have found out about what may be different from previous recruitment efforts is that it's much more discreet in terms of people going door-to-door and making the pitch and it's a long-term training process, and it's accurate to say that many mothers are rejecting this and pointing out the recruiters. So there's a bit of an underground nature to it now. The Somali community, as I said, is very active and has stepped up.

And a number of groups have condemned what happened to make it clear to non-Muslims that this is not something that happens routinely. I think they've really put a face on the community and trying to turn it into something that's much more positive than negative.

MARTIN: Mark Brunswick is a reporter with the Star Tribune in Minnesota. He joined us from member station Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Mohamed Elibiary is the founder of Lone Star Intelligence. He was with us once again from Dallas, Texas. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

BRUNSWICK: Thanks, Michel.

ELIBIARY: Thank you.

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