FBI gets tips on Somalians who may have joined Syrian rebels
MINNEAPOLIS — A day after asking for information about young Somali Minnesotans who may have gone to Syria to fight with radical Islamist groups, the FBI is beginning to sort through the tips that have come in.
Meanwhile, a Somali community activist said family members of some of those thought to be involved have received subpoenas for grand jury proceedings.
The FBI won’t say yet what useful information, if any, the tip lines have yielded. But calls are coming in, said spokesman Kyle Loven.
“We have gotten some information, but we’re not in a position to talk about scope or volume or anything like that,” Loven said.
The bureau made the request Tuesday after getting information that some young Somali Minnesotans may recently have traveled or tried to travel from Minnesota to Syria to fight alongside forces battling the government of President Bashar Assad.
The 3-year-old civil war has drawn a number of foreign fighters and pulled in factions tied to al-Qaida and other radical Islamist organizations.
The FBI won’t say yet how many people from Minnesota may be involved, whether any actually made it to Syria or whether anyone is in custody.
It’s against federal law for U.S. citizens to fight in foreign conflicts, Loven said.
The bureau is working with Somali community leaders to gather information and reach out to teens and young men who might be at risk for recruitment by extremists, Loven said.
Legal proceedings also are underway, said community activist Omar Jamal. Jamal said at least two people — family members of young men who may be missing — approached him Wednesday for guidance on grand jury subpoenas they received in the case.
Jamal said he told them to be truthful and to work with law enforcement to get to the bottom of the issue. At the same time, he urged federal investigators not to be heavy-handed in dealing with the community.
“The community is ready to work with the government,” he said, because the extremist groups in question are a threat to Somalis as well.
“When you have very willing partners, there is no need to scare them off,” he said.
He said reactions in the Somali community here to the news range from shock to denial. Some people think the FBI is overstating the issue, Jamal said, while others can’t fathom why Somali youths would take up arms in a county thousands of miles from their homeland.
“They would never have imagined any Somali kid going to fight in Syria,” he said. “It’s like a Somali kid going to fight in Ukraine.”
The case echoes the recruitment of young men from Minnesota by al-Shabaab, an Islamist terrorist organization in Somalia. Nearly two dozen men are believed to have left Minnesota over the past seven years to fight for the group.
The same ideological tenets that drew those men could be driving the Syria cases, said Awa Abdi, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota.
“What took some Somalis to Somalia is possibly what could take them everywhere,” she said.
Abdi, who has studied the experiences of Somali immigrants here and abroad, said there are close ties between Syria and Somalia. Many Somalis settled there before the civil war, she said, and some here might have personal links to the country.
Others might be at risk for recruitment by extremists because they feel disenfranchised — both within American society and in their own communities, where they don’t see eye to eye with older generations.
“They are caught between cultures,” Abdi said. “That type of person might be looking for something to hang onto.”
Many Somalis here fled their own civil war and have little appetite for more violence, she said. But the Internet gives young people access to a broad range of material that can sway them — and they might be pulled by the idea that the plight of Muslims anywhere in the world is their own plight, too.
“The way they will justify going to these wars is that Muslims are being persecuted,” she said.
Anyone with information on recruitment or travel activities can call the FBI at 763-569-8020 or submit tips at fbi.gov/fttips. All tips will be confidential, the FBI said.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.