“We have to educate our youth; they’re still in a learning process.”
“Stop Al-Shabab barbaric terror.”
“We stand with Garissa University.”
“Down (with) extremist Al-Shabab ideology.”
These were some of the words written on signs being displayed by local adults and youth at a demonstration on the afternoon of April 3 outside of the Brian Coyle Center in Minneapolis.
Yussuf Haji, one of the organizers of the demonstration, said the group was uniting to speak out against Al-Shabab, an Islamist militant group based in Somalia and affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and its violent attack on Garissa University College in Kenya, which took place just the day before. About 150 people were killed and at least 79 were injured in the attack.
“Today is about the victims and the people who died in that attack,” Haji said. “Today we only mean to present our sympathy.”
The impact of recent actions from the extremist group Al-Shabab has been felt in Minnesota. Al-Shabab’s recruitment of young Somali people in the state has been an ongoing issue and its threat of an attack to the Mall of America in Bloomington caused a scare in February.
For some, such as Haji and fellow organizer Kiman Ugas, the recent Al-Shabab attack on Garissa University College in Kenya strikes close to home. Both Ugas and Haji said they grew up in Garissa and have special connections to where the terrorist attack took place. On April 3, they spoke out against the violence that occurred in their hometown.
“The group that died were young men and women in college trying to get an education,” Haji said. “They did not deserve what happened.”
Considering issues of recruitment, Haji said, the local Muslim community must condemn the actions of terrorist groups such as Al-Shabab because “it’s very important that they know that we do not support the violence.”
“We are Muslims, and it’s important that they know that not only are these acts condemned by the Muslim community, but by anyone who is human,” Haji said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Muslim or Christian or Jewish, you must condemn such acts.”
Some locals, such as Ugas, believe these Al-Shabab attacks and threats stem from the fact that “Al-Shabab is looking for attention.”
“Since the United States is switching their view to ISIS, what they [Al-Shabab] want to do is come out making threats to get publicity like ISIS does,” Ugas said.
ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, also known as ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is a terrorist group believed by the majority of Muslims to be using a distortion of Islam to justify its actions, such as the recent beheading of 21 Christian Egyptian men in Libya.
Groups such as Al-Shabab and ISIS are known to use social media to spread their messages of extremism and recruit youth.
Haji, too, believes that Al-Shabab wants the attention. Through the publicity and media coverage of these terrorist groups, their messages are able to reach a broad audience.
“This is what the extremist killers want, they want exactly what we’re doing right now, which is giving them more attention,” Haji said. “They want the publicity.”
Just ten minutes prior to the demonstration and about 100 feet away, inside the Brian Coyle Center, Mohamud Noor, the director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, also said Al-Shabab “is trying to remain relevant.”
“It’s up to us and the rest of the Somali community to condemn those actions,” Noor said. “[Al-Shabab and ISIS] don’t represent Islam. They don’t represent what we value.”
The primary goal of CSCM, which started in 1993, is to help Somali community members integrate into society in the Twin Cities.
As a strategy for counteracting the recruitment of Somali youth into groups such as Al-Shabab, CSCM provides opportunities to young people by trying to eliminate the “lack of housing opportunity, lack of opportunity for young people and lack of employment opportunity,” Noor said. The best way to combat recruitment is through the empowerment of youth, he said.
“If one person is recruited, it’s a big problem because we’re failing to do our work of helping the youth succeed,” Noor said. “We want to find out the root causes of that recruitment, we need to engage the young people, and we need to provide preventative measures and intervention for those kids that are vulnerable. We need to be able to deter things before they even go to the airport, board the plane, and go to Syria or any other place, thinking about joining an extremist group.”
However, Noor spoke of the importance of not blowing the recruitment statistics out of proportion.
“There is a misconception that there is ongoing recruitment and really there’s only a handful who have left compared to 28,000 community members who live in Minnesota,” Noor said. “Even though we don’t directly counteract those efforts, we provide opportunity for youth in the Somali community.”
Finding quality educational programming, helping children through different developmental stages and engaging youth are just a few of the organization’s goals of advocacy. With about 63 percent of the Minnesota Somali community living in poverty, according to media reports that cite a report from the Center for Popular Democracy, the work of organizations such as CSCM help contribute to a decrease in the lack of opportunity in the Somali community.
However, as much as CSCM advocates for local Somali youth, a goal for the organization is that parents be their child’s primary advocate.
“Let [the parents] take the opportunity to know who their kid is interacting with, where they go, what they’re doing online, and become their advocate,” Noor said.
At the demonstration outside of the Brian Coyle Center, those who gathered were not only adults, but also children who may represent the future voices of their communities.
“We have to educate our youth; they’re still in a learning process,” Haji said. “It’s important to talk to them so that they see that we condemn these acts, and so that they can stay away from influences that may entice them.
“When the community speaks, they speak to everybody. So we are collectively speaking out against violence, terror and extremism.”