A federal grand jury investigation going on all summer in St. Paul, Minnesota has been focused on a group of 20-30 Somali-Americans allegedly conspiring to join the fight with the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. Most of the youths being investigated have been going to the Al Farooq Youth and Family Center and mosque in Bloomington, where sources told the Star Tribune that 31-year-old Amir Meshal, an American of Egyptian descent, may have influenced them to join the jihadist movement.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been aware of Meshal for quite some time. The native New Jerseyan was detained and interrogated by the agency in 2007 in Kenya, following his escape from Somalia. Meshal admits he attended a terrorist training camp in Somalia, but insists he isn’t a terrorist, claiming he went to that war-torn nation to enrich his study of Islam.
Despite the ACLU’s contention that Meshal’s Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights were violated, along with the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991, the case was dismissed by Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on June 13.
Despite buying the government’s argument that national security considerations abroad preclude judicial remedies for the mistreatment Meshal allegedly endured, Sullivan, a Clinton appointee, was distressed by the decision. “The facts alleged in this case and the legal questions presented are deeply troubling,” he contended, before conceding his hands were tied. “Although Congress has legislated with respect to detainee rights, it has provided no civil remedies for US citizens subject to the appalling mistreatment Mr. Meshal has alleged against officials of his own government.”
This past summer, Meshal began occasionally showing up at the Al Farooq Youth and Family Center, where hundreds of Muslims show up for prayer on Fridays at one of the largest mosques in the Twin Cities. He was known for having lots of money and driving a fancy BMW. In June, a parent at the center complained about Meshal promoting radical Islam.
That aroused the suspicion of mosque director Hyder Aziz, who was so concerned about Meshal’s intentions he went to the police that same month and obtained a no-trespass order. “I made a decision that he needs to be removed from the premises,” Aziz said. “I will call police if he ever shows up and they will arrest him.”
It may be too late. Federal authorities believe that at least a dozen Somali men and three women have traveled to the Middle East to join in jihad directly, or aid the terrorists in some capacity, including two people who attended Al Farooq and disappeared, presumably to Syria. One is a 19-year-old Somali woman from St. Paul who was not identified. The other is 20-year-old Abdi Mohamed Nur who played basketball at the center and attended the Bloomington mosque. He disappeared around the same time the no trespass order against Meshal was issued.
In June the FBI prevented another teen from boarding a plane at the Minneapolis-St.Paul International Airport because they believed his final destination was Syria. He had been dropped off at school by his father, after which he allegedly changed clothes and headed to the airport with a suitcase. When the FBI arrested him they made it clear to his family they were less interested in him than who recruited him.
Yet as the grand jury investigation has revealed, the level of distrust among members of the community is impeding the investigation. “The relationship between our community and law enforcement has been, at times, very tense and full of suspicion,” said Omar Jamal, director of the St. Paul-based nonprofit American Friends of Somalia. “We’re improving, but we’re not there yet. Both sides are coming to realize that in order to stop these recruitments, we have to work together. One side can’t accomplish the task without the other.”
Nonetheless, many of those who have been subpoenaed are invoking their Fifth Amendment rights and refusing to answer questions.
Hashi Shafi, director of the Somali Action Alliance in Minneapolis, claims many people want to speak, but are “scared.” Yet Shafi and other community leaders are urging families who have lost children to jihad recruitment to speak up. “We are the victims of this violent extremism so we have to stand up and lead these kinds of efforts,” he explained.
In the meantime, Meshal himself remains at large. The 18-year-old youth stopped at the airport in June has accused him of being his recruiter. The youth’s attorney upped the ante, accusing Meshal of being a double-agent for the FBI and ISIS. The lawsuit filed by the ACLU provides some insight into the accusation: Meshal claimed the FBI tried to turn him into a government informant, taking him off the government’s no-fly list if he cooperated. And while the youth’s lawyer is sticking with that assertion, the teen himself will not testify against Meshal unless he is granted immunity.
Last month two Americans from Minnesota, Douglas McCain and Abdirahmaan Muhumed, aka Abdifatah Ahmed, were killed fighting for ISIS. In a shocking revelation that underscores America’s continuing vulnerability to terror attacks, the Metropolitan Airports Commission conceded that Ahmed held a Secure Identification Display Area (SIDA) security badge, granting him airport security clearance and unfettered access to the tarmac and planes to perform his job as an aircraft fueler and cleaner. He performed the jobs intermittently between 2001 and 2011.
Shafi and other area leaders are apparently committed to rooting out the extremism afflicting their community. They have begun holding meetings with the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department and Department of Homeland Security’s civil liberties division. An additional meeting is being planned with the U.S. Transportation Security Administration and airport administrators. U.S. Attorney Andy Luger is also meeting with local imams on a regular basis “to develop strong personal and professional relationships with leaders in the Somali community,” in an effort to stop those “who seek to recruit Somali and other youth into a life of crime, violence and terror.”
Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann will introduce legislation aimed at preventing any citizen who goes overseas to engage in jihad from returning to America. “In my opinion, they should lose their American citizenship,” she explained. “Because at that point, you have turned against the United States. ISIS has declared the United States as their enemy. Once you join an enemy army … you should, by definition, lose your American citizenship, therefore your passport. You should have no ability to get back into the United States.”
All of these efforts are well-intended and may also be effective—up to a point. “For some, terrifyingly, the jihad has become a badge of radical chic,” writes journalist Alex Massie. “A lifestyle choice like any other.”
It is doubtful that the Obama administration is up to the task of deterring people from this lifestyle. Obama’s newfound commitment to take seriously the threat of ISIS has a troubling backdrop — namely, the administration’s ongoing determination to avoid identifying the threat as Islamic terror, Obama’s initial dismissal of ISIS as a “javee” organization, and a 2012 purge of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Analytic Lexicon, eliminating the words “Muslim,” “Islam,” “Muslim Brotherhood,” “Hamas,” and “sharia” in the process.
Absent a radical change of direction by this president and his administration, America will remain fertile ground for terrorist recruiters and their willing followers. Amir Meshal is ostensibly one of them. It is virtually certain there are many more.