Community leaders worry about program’s safeguards against surveillance
A PILOT PROGRAM to help curb recruitment of local Somali youth by overseas extremist groups has sparked debate within the Muslim and Somali communities about the program’s safeguards against surveillance.
The Countering Violent Extremism pilot program, also known as the Building Community Resilience program, is led in the Twin Cities by U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger in an effort to “address the community-identified root causes of radicalization to violence,” according to Ben Petok, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota.
Some Somali and Muslim leaders are concerned about the program becoming a means of surveillance on their communities, while others believe the pilot could be a step in the right direction.
The federal government-led program is designed to join primarily Somali Minnesotan community members and federal authorities in the fight against violent extremism recruitment through economic development and outreach activities, according to Petok. The program seeks to create community-led intervention teams, as well as bring mentorship and afterschool programs, scholarships, job trainers and placement officers into the Somali community, according to the Department of Justice’s website. Minnesota boasts the largest Somali population in North America, with the vast majority living in the Twin Cities.
Leaders of the pilot program are at work trying to identify partners and funding for the program in Minneapolis and St. Paul, according to Petok.
However, some Muslim community leaders, such as Jaylani Hussein, are worried about the “blur of lines between surveillance and community outreach.”
Hussein is the executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Like others, he is concerned the program may increase surveillance and marginalize the Somali community, even pointing to the dangers that the loose interpretation of the program’s terminology could bring.
“Our initial reaction was, ‘What are the safeguards against abuse?’ and we saw that previous outreach programs (similar to the CVE program) actually blurred the lines between surveillance and outreach,” Hussein said.
The previous outreach programs Hussein referenced were used in some European countries in recent years after attempted terroristic activities in Europe and the Middle East. One program CVE is modeled on is the Prevent program in the U.K., which “failed,” according to Amber Michel, CAIR-MN’s civic engagement manager, because it created a “division in the community” between federal authorities and the general Muslim population.
Petok refuted the idea that the outreach efforts would be a means of surveillance.
“The notion that a community-led program to bring resources into the Somali Minnesotan community is somehow a cover for surveillance is baseless and naïve,” Petok said.
Some local Somali leaders, however, are hopeful about the program.
Omar Jamal, a consultant for the charter school education system in Minnesota, is a leading voice for the Somali community, specifically regarding youth. Jamal, who debated Hussein about the CVE program on CNN in February, is part of a minority of Somali community members who publicly support the pilot.
Although he said he does not think the CVE program will prevent youth from joining terrorist groups, Jamal believes that “young people respond to a call,” and he hopes that the program’s proposed youth internship and mentorship opportunities will be that call for Somali teens.
When asked about some Somali leaders’ concern with the program, Jamal said, “There is nothing that is all positive.”
Reasons for recruitment
Although Somali organizations and many Twin Cities mosques have tried to get involved in the anti-recruitment process, Jamal believes the recruitment problem is less about Jihad and more about the problems of underemployment and social alienation within the Minnesota Somali community.
He spoke of cases where poor, single Somali women are unable to understand or control their young boys due to the age gap and cultural differences.
“The problem is the absence of the father in the house,” Jamal said.
Factor in issues of poverty, unemployment, low education levels and gangs for some in the Somali community, and it can lead to youth being recruited, according to Jamal. Drugs and psychological problems stemming from having left a war-torn country also can play a factor.
However, CVE leaders cannot begin to tackle the subject of recruitment without first addressing the topic of U.S. foreign policy, leaders such as Jamal and Michel say.
“When we see drones killing little kids in Yemen, it is that that does more to drive recruitment to these organizations than any ‘slick video,’’’ Michel said. “You cannot target people who are healthy, happy, and feel respected, engaged, heard and listened to, and convince them to join an [extremist] organization. But you can easily target people who … see their sisters and brothers are being killed around the world, then yeah, then that becomes very fertile ground.”
‘Suspicion’ and ‘confusion’ in the Somali community
Groups such as CAIR-MN urge that anti-recruitment activities should stay away from the FBI and Department of Justice, and instead be led by local nonprofits and government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
There have been many meetings held in the Twin Cities to foster trust between the U.S. Attorney and Somali community members, but there is still much “suspicion” and “confusion” regarding the program, according to Jamal.
A special committee within the program will be assigned to research the causes of violent extremism recruitment and better understand Somali history and culture to “… increase positive engagement between law enforcement, government, and the Minnesota Somali community,” according to a “Memorandum of Understanding” that Luger signed in May to help alleviate concerns.
Whether the pilot program will work remains to be seen.
“I do not think Mr. Luger can stop recruitment,” Michel said.