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GROWING INFLUENCE: Somali men pray inside a Minneapolis mosque.
Jonathan Alpeyrie
GROWING INFLUENCE: Somali men pray inside a Minneapolis mosque.

Overcoming the headlines

Somalia | The Somali-American community in Minneapolis—one of the largest in the West—takes on militancy and bad news from Somalia, even as terrorists work to recruit immigrants from afar

MINNEAPOLIS—Minneapolis is home to over 18,000 Somalis, according to 2010 U.S. Census data (and Minnesota has up to 120,000 residents of Somali descent, according to FBI estimates)—making it one of the largest Somali immigrant communities in the West. The group’s influence is growing: Last year Somali-born Abdi Warsame won election to the Minneapolis City Council, becoming the first Somali-American to hold office in the United States in this city of about 393,000. 

Another Somali-American, actor Barkhad Abdi, is attracting attention this month for his Oscar-nominated role in Captain Phillips. It’s not unusual to bump into Abdi in the city’s Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, known as “Little Mogadishu.” 

But rising stars haven’t yet overcome a legacy of militancy and terrorism that dogs Somalis living in the United States. Last September gunmen from al-Shabaab, a Somali Islamist militant group linked to al-Qaeda, killed at least 67 people and wounded over 200 at a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Via Twitter al-Shabaab named Somali-Americans from the Twin Cities—Ahmed Mohamed Isse and Abdifatah Osman Keenadiid—along with Mustafe Noorudiin of Kansas City, Mo., as attackers, according to U.S. law enforcement.

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Reports of al-Shabaab recruiting out of the Twin Cities proliferate. The group circulated a YouTube video last August targeting young Somali men in Minneapolis. Forty-five minutes long, “The Path to Paradise from the Twin Cities to the Land of Two Migrations” featured three young men from Minneapolis, two Somalis and a U.S.-born convert to Islam. All have since died in East Africa in so-called “martyrdom operations.” On the video one of the men, U.S. native Troy Kastigar, laughs: “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.” The video has since has been removed from YouTube.

Minneapolis Somalis say for every al-Shabaab recruit, though, they know many young Somali-Americans who’ve declined the invitation, wanting to make the most of their opportunities in the United States. Mohamed Amin Ahmed, a Somali who arrived in the United States 20 years ago with his parents and siblings to escape Somalia’s civil war, said he’s “frustrated” by the negative perception. “I’ve got tons of nephews and they kept asking me, ‘Is that our religion?’” said the husband and father of three. 

Shirwa Hersi, 27, a Somali-born former U.S. Marine with a neatly trimmed beard, said he’s sometimes bitter about the climate of distrust in the United States, having himself served in the U.S. military fighting terrorism. “It’s difficult to be proud of who you,” he said. 

AFTER DECADES OF watching its population drop, Minneapolis welcomed refugee communities, first Asian Hmongs following war in Vietnam and Cambodia, and later Somalis, starting with a 1991 civil war in the Horn of Africa nation. Somalia has been without a legitimate government much of the time since, with estimates of 350,000 to 1 million having died in the ongoing conflict. With that comes a steady stream of refugees seeking safe haven outside the country.

In Minneapolis resettled Somalis have discovered frosty weather but also jobs in poultry slaughterhouses and assembly lines, with subsidies for housing and other necessities. 

The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, along with local Lutheran charities and other groups (see sidebar), has worked to provide assistance and help integrate what’s widely known as one of the most closeted ethnic communities of refugees. Somali-Americans, too, are becoming more vocal about the need to counter the al-Shabaab message. 

“It takes an idea to kill an idea,” Mohamed Amin Ahmed likes to say, “and I’m full of ideas.” Ahmed manages a gas station in Minneapolis and hopes one day to own his own food business. He launched a website, averagemohamed.com, to deter young Somalis from terrorism and provide alternatives to al-Shabaab’s propaganda. On the internet he posts short cartoons in English and Somali explaining that suicide bombing is against Islam.

Abdirizak Bihi, director of the Somali Education and Social Advocacy Center in Minneapolis, welcomes the initiative. “We need to redouble our work to make sure that people know al-Shabaab for what it is. ... Above all, we need to eliminate the vulnerability of these young people by fighting poverty and unemployment, because al-Shabaab takes advantage of them.”

Bihi’s own life has been rocked by radicalization. His nephew, Burhan Hassan, 17, returned to Somalia in November 2008 and joined al-Shabaab with five other Somalis from the Twin Cities. Eight months later, when he wanted to quit and return to his family in Minneapolis, militants killed him with a bullet to the head.

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