They hope to reduce ‘those vulnerabilities of our youth’
As terrorist groups continue to lure young Somalis from the Twin Cities to join them in the Middle East, Voice of East African Women (VEAW), based in Minneapolis, has started a series — Mothers Against Youth Recruitment — to address the growing problem affecting Somali women losing their children to terrorist recruiters.
On October 15, at a local Somali community gathering at the Sabathani Community Center, Somali parents and community leaders were joined by Andrew Luger, U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, State Sen. Jim Carlson, Rep. Karen Clark, and Richard Thornton, FBI Special Agent in Charge, to talk about the continued trips of youths from Minnesota to join jihadist groups in Somalia, Syria, Iran, Iraq and other countries.
The organizer and participants hope the meeting will mend the tense relationship between the Somali community and law officials over the past few years. For now, the Somali women’s group and law enforcement want to find lasting solutions to cut down the rapid recruitment of young men and women from Minnesota for terror battlefields abroad.
Federal investigators say more than 20 Somali youths have left the Twin Cities to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), Al-Shabab and other groups in the past two years. Yet, many in the Somali community distance themselves from the problem.
“We want to open questions to the public with the media present,” said Farhio Khalif, founder and executive director of VEAW. “We see this [recruitment news] on TV every day. It is behind closed doors that we always talk about this. We invited the world to have mothers to put their voices out to talk about it. That something is happening. The recruitment is going on and who is really doing it?”
Khalif noted that this is the fourth part of the series discussion, and in previous meetings only women were involved in talks about their personal experiences and what they are going through in losing their children to terror groups. “Family members are blaming the law enforcement, and the law enforcement says that we don’t know who is recruiting your children,” said Khalif, the event’s organizer. “This is more like mothers, fathers and parents standing and asking questions, and the law enforcement also giving information that they know.”
At the meeting, Luger and Thornton assured those present that they have a common goal with the Somali women and the community to stop terrorist groups from recruiting their children. “ISIS is a terrorist organization,” said Thornton. “They are murderers. They’re rapists. They enslave people. They commit atrocities on a daily basis.
“We know there is a very strong likelihood that if some young person leaves Minnesota to join [ISIS] in Syria and Iraq, they’re going to die in a battlefield there,” continued Thornton. “And that’s not something that we want to see happen to any young person from Minnesota or anywhere else.”
Khalif said many women are suffering in silence, not knowing what to do or where to turn for help when their children are caught in the web of extremist recruiters. For many who are here without close relatives in the Twin Cities, and for single parents, the burden of finding lasting solutions is hard on them. Khalif briefly talked about one such woman.
“She’s afraid. And she told me, ‘I know my son is dead in Syria. He left last year.’ But she doesn’t know what’s going on, or how he ended up over there,” Khalif said. “But you know what, she wants to talk about [it], and advocate.”
“Though I thought I figured it out, I am worried every minute,” Saciido Shaie, a mother of three children, told the gathering. “I know the language. I read. I figure things out. Imagine parents who never figured out any of that, who when they go to the grocery don’t even know what they’re looking for because of the language barrier.”
To help the community address the recruitment problem and find solutions, the Somali-American Taskforce, a 15-member group, was created earlier this year. The group’s main goal is to end terror recruitment in Minnesota, but many Somali Minnesotans were skeptical about the program. At the town hall meeting Luger addressed the issue.
“This pilot program has nothing to do with spying on the community,” said Luger. “And, if you have any doubt…if we wanted to use these programs to spy on the community, why on earth would we be up here talking about them?”
Though the program, formerly called Countering Violent Extremism, is federally funded, its critics and Somali Americans stressed that it unfairly targets and stigmatizes young Somalis, also claiming that it was an effort by the Justice Department to collect intelligence from their community. Luger completely disagreed with such claims, adding it was meant to support after-school programs for youth.
For now, many have come to the conclusion that Somali mothers have a major role to play in stopping their children from joining extremist groups, and also ending terrorist recruiting in Minnesota.
“The mother in the Somali-American community is very strong, is very assertive in engaging the Somali American community in an open dialogue,” said Abdirizak Bihi, a community activist against extremist recruitment in the Twin Cities. “If the Somali mothers get engaged like this, I think we can see a huge reduction of those vulnerabilities of our youth.”
Meanwhile, law enforcement officials are still trying to find who is doing the recruiting, leading many youths to die abroad in foreign wars.
“There is no evidence that someone is pulling the strings. It is multifaceted. People here [in the Twin Cities] are traveling abroad. That is why it is so hard. If it is someone on the street corner doing that [recruiting], we can investigate,” said Thornton. “But it is friends-to-friends doing the recruiting and coming [from] overseas, through social media. Almost recruiting each other.”