U.S. Plan To Counter Violent Extremism Can Benefit Communities One in four attempted American ISIS recruits is from Minnesota. Supporters of a federal program aimed stamping out ISIS recruitment in cities like Minneapolis say it could be a model for other cities.

Whether It Works Or Not, U.S. Anti-Radicalization Plan Can Benefit Communities

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And this is For The Record.


MARTIN: The investigation into the Brussels terrorist attacks is ongoing. And most of the attention is on one neighborhood called Molenbeek.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's a working-class neighborhood in Brussels that is now feared to be turning into a breeding ground of sorts for terrorists.

MARTIN: Many of the terrorists responsible for both the attacks in Brussels and in Paris last November lived in Molenbeek. There's not an analogous city or neighborhood in the U.S. The closest you get is Minneapolis, home to the largest Somali community in the country. One in 4 of the more than 250 Americans who have tried to go join ISIS are from Minnesota.


SCOTT PELLEY: Today, six Somali-Americans who live in Minnesota were charged with attempting to enlist with the terrorist group known as Islamic State.

MARTIN: Now the federal government is stepping in to stop this trend. The Department of Justice is giving money to community groups in Minneapolis, trying to create alternative paths for young people who might be vulnerable to the ISIS message. For The Record this week, how one community is taking on the Islamic State.


MARTIN: We're going to introduce you to two people who have dedicated much of their lives to fixing this problem.

MOHAMUD NOOR: My name is Mohamud Noor. I'm the executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota.

MOHAMED MOHAMUD: My name is Mohamed Mohamud. I'm the executive director of Somali American Parent Association.

MARTIN: Before we get to the current situation, it's important to know the back story here. Mohamud Noor explains.

NOOR: The youth who recruited didn't start with ISIS. It started with al-Shabaab way back, almost nine years ago.

MARTIN: Al-Shabaab is the radical Islamist group that's been embroiled in the long civil war in Somalia. In 2006 and 2007, more than 20 people from Minnesota left to fight with al-Shabaab in Somalia.

NOOR: And I think that was the wake-up call on that issue. And I think that is the same propaganda or message that is being used, the ideology of fighting for someone else's fight.

MARTIN: So there was a history of radicalization here, but it's been compounded by other factors. The governor of Minnesota, Mark Dayton, said recently that the income of an average Somali family in the state is more than 70 percent lower than the average white family's. Mohamed Mohamud says that's connected to the threat of radicalism.

MOHAMUD: When the young kid doesn't have any work and living in that poverty, and you get some evil people who are recruiting through their social media - they say, we have for you money, wife and power - a young kid who doesn't have enough, you know, mind to think, when he hears that he goes.

MARTIN: A lot of these kids feel disconnected from their families, their peers, which is pretty normal, frankly, for teenagers anywhere. But Mohamed Mohamud says that kind of isolation is amplified in immigrant families.

MOHAMUD: Some time a father came to me and he said, I am a Somali and I have an American kid in my home. Yes, I am an American citizen, but what I mean is that we don't understand each other.


MOHAMUD: The families who came to me, they say, for example, my kid doesn't talk to me. He is or she is or he is, whatever - close his or her door, you know, immediately when they come to the house. I don't know what they do.

The kids, they - I don't say that they are assimilated fully, but they are in - somewhere in the middle. They doesn't have their original culture. They didn't get to the assimilation fully, so they are - so middle.

MARTIN: The Obama administration has put a lot of time and energy into thinking about what they call countering violent extremism. And one of the big conclusions is that the federal government needs to invest in local communities, so there's a new pilot program.

The DOJ is giving money to community groups in Los Angeles, Boston and Minneapolis. In total, six groups in Minnesota that work with Somali youth will share about $300,000 in grants. Andrew Luger is the U.S. attorney for Minnesota.

ANDREW LUGER: The whole community in my meetings really believed that with certain resources, and the right programming and partnerships with established nonprofits, that could lift up this community and help it fight terror recruiting.

MARTIN: Mohamud Noor and Mohamed Mohamud both run organizations that got these federal grants. And they're tackling the issues from two perspectives - focusing on the kids, but also the parents.

One challenge is technology. Parents often don't understand it, which is a problem because it can also be a place where kids are targeted by ISIS. Mohamed Mohamud works on teaching parents the basics.

MOHAMUD: We are trying to teach them how they can go to their laptop and see which sites they have visited.

MARTIN: It's worth pointing out how close-knit this community is. Mohamud Noor knows some of the families whose kids have left to try to fight with ISIS, and he has gotten those phone calls. I asked him what those conversations are like.

Do they assume their child is gone forever, or do they think it's temporary and they'll come back?

NOOR: Well, we haven't seen anybody leave and come back, so that's what they know. Once you leave, you're gone for good. I know some of the parents have tried to reach out when they had that line - communication line open. But what we know - it's a one-way ticket.


MARTIN: Now this whole thing may sound overly simplistic. Even the name of the program - Building Community Resilience - sounds like thousands of other social programs around the country. And honestly, the aims are the same as many of these other organizations - job training, more after-school programs, things like that.

But Andrew Luger says if there's even a chance that this program could deter one young person, it's a worthy investment.

LUGER: From my perspective, we had to try something that would at least help the community. If it helps lessen terror recruiting, obviously that was the goal, but if it didn't, it was still good for an important and vital part of the overall Twin Cities community.

MARTIN: Community groups in Minneapolis, LA and Boston are at different stages of putting their grant money to work, although it is impossible to determine if this program is actually going to end up preventing someone from going off to fight with ISIS. Even so, supporters say if it ends up making a positive difference, then these kinds of investments could be a model other cities could follow.

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