Terrorist Recruitment and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Programs in Minneapolis-St. Paul – April 2015

Conducting Fieldwork in an Immigrant Community

The first interview the report authors conducted in Minneapolis was held in the evening, in a back office of a brick two-story building in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, the epicenter of Somali immigration to the United States. We were led into a small room where we found several Somali men and women with uncertain gazes. They closed the door, and the eldest figure in the room leaned forward and asked, “What do you want?”

As the conversation evolved, it was clear they had researched us, though we knew very little about them. Each of the people in that room ultimately became an essential source for the findings in this report. Indeed, this group came to refer to the report authors as “family.” We ate dinner together, went to Somali Islamic schools, and watched young people play soccer. We learned about their families, their backgrounds, and their admirable embrace of American society. Over the course of three trips, these connections opened the Somali-American community to us in a way that is not often reflected in previous studies of the Twin Cities communities. The question is, why were we successful in eliciting so much information, in a matter of months, when previous researchers found the community to be closed and unwilling to talk?

Based on this research experience, there are several evident best practices for conducting research in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Somali community, and potentially, in immigrant communities across the country.

Leveraging Backgrounds
The report authors recognized early on that there were two critical attributes that allowed us to quickly establish common ground with our sources, the basis for trust and collaboration. Dr. Erroll Southers is African American. The advantage of his ethnicity was most clearly seen during our first visit, when a resident said, “I am African. You are African-American. You know exactly what we go through in America.”

The individual was explaining the consequences of profiling, exacerbated by immigration and the ongoing homeland security threats. While infrequently mentioned directly, sources exhibited comfort and familiarity during interviews and subtly acknowledged that Southers’ race made a difference to them.

Justin Hienz is a scholar of religion with years of academic and professional study of Islam, including time spent living and traveling throughout the Middle East. Hienz’s deep familiarity with Islamic texts, terms, history and other religious ideas allowed the report authors to immediately evidence our appreciation for and understanding of our sources’ belief system. Several sources remarked, “You know more about my religion than I do.”

These two qualities—Southers’ ethnicity and Hienz’s understanding of Islam—allowed the report authors to connect with sources on the two parts of their identity that create the most concern in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Racial tensions in Minneapolis create a sense of isolation for the Somali-American community, and Southers’ ethnicity inherently implied to sources that he could understand their concerns and experiences on a personal level. Meanwhile, given the noted perception of government animosity towards Islam, Hienz’s ready knowledge of the faith implied to sources that they could speak openly without fear of being misinterpreted, including frank conversations on the concept of jihad, which, while a dangerous motivation for violent extremism, is also a legitimate, sacred-text-based Islamic concept.

Future researchers would do well to consider their own backgrounds and whether they can be leveraged to establish common ground and trust. One critical question every researcher should ask themselves before commencing fieldwork is, Am I the right researcher for this project? Intellect and professional accomplishments are not always sufficient to yield valid, deep insights in a community cautious of outsiders.

Honesty and Transparency
While the report authors were aware of the benefits of their respective backgrounds, they were also keenly aware of the drawbacks. Dr. Southers is a former FBI Special Agent and a career law enforcement officer. Given the animosity towards federal law enforcement, this professional background could have presented an impediment to trust and openness. The report authors were aware of this potential conflict before arriving, and from the initial meeting with community leaders through the final interview conducted for this report, Dr. Southers purposefully informed each source that he formerly worked for the FBI. This forthrightness yielded candid, often-negative statements about the Bureau’s CVE efforts, though comments were offered in a way that acknowledged Southers had no responsibility for the FBI’s perceived missteps.

This transparency cultivated trust in part because many of the sources had researched Dr. Southers and were already aware of his previous work with the FBI. His readiness to admit his work for the Federal government evidenced honesty. Had he concealed any part of his background, most sources would have recognized deceit and reciprocated with less-than-truthful responses during interviews.

Likewise, the report authors did not hesitate to tell sources that this project has been funded by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate. Nor did we conceal that our primary interest was in the foreign fighter recruitment occurring in Minneapolis-St. Paul, a sensitive topic in the community that has attracted significant attention—and generated significant resentment of federally funded research efforts.

Overcoming Preconceived Notions
One of the first and most frequent criticisms the report authors heard from sources about other research efforts was that the community feels like an experiment under observation, like “lab rats.” After years of researchers, journalists, government offices, and other organizations coming to Minneapolis-St. Paul to study radicalization and recruitment, many in the community feel that all promises of help are hollow, all declarations of support self-serving.

Particular grievance was expressed regarding a study in which the researchers reportedly paid individuals for interviews. The principal investigator was characterized as aggressive and insulting, and the injection of money created tension within the community. This evidenced, in the eyes of our sources, a distinct absence of respect and appreciation for the community. As a result of this blunt approach, sources said they were less than forthcoming with interviewers, withholding critical information that by consequence made the study incomplete and in some cases, inaccurate.

Sources used this example of a poorly conducted study to highlight why we were being given so much information and access to the community. Sources mentioned the value of relationship building 42 times, indicating it is a widely shared sentiment. The community is willing to work with people who take time to build trust. On our first visit to Minneapolis, we spent more time listening than asking questions. We did not conduct structured interviews and did not record any discussions. During most conversations on the first visit, there was little or no talk about terrorism or terrorist organizations, foreign fighters, or CVE. This gave sources time to assess the motivations and forthrightness of the report authors, allowing trust to develop naturally, a tactic that proved vastly more productive than offering money for interviews.

Encouraging Community Collaboration
Sources also indicated that because the report authors showed genuine interest in the community, its challenges and its accomplishments, they were more willing to discuss the primary research interest—terrorist recruitment and methods for countering it. Despite the focus of this report, interviews always began with questions about where the sources had lived in the United States, their path to Minneapolis and the primary public safety concerns for their community. With few exceptions, it was not until midway through interviews that the topic of extremism and recruitment was raised. Sources were consistently aware of the report authors’ primary research interest, but focusing on the source’s personal history and concerns evidenced genuine interest in the source, by consequence building a trust level that allowed sources to feel comfortable discussing a sensitive topic.

Yet, the purpose of the questions regarding community concerns was not simply to engender trust and comfort with the report authors. Potential violent extremists all have families and live in communities that possess the potential to reduce the risk of a deadly attack. With an appreciation of how charismatic figures, group dynamics, and the radicalization pathway contribute to the emergence of violent extremism, it is essential to understand and leverage a community’s identified priorities as a means to enhance public safety (and reduce the risk of foreign fighter recruitment). Doing so requires a more nuanced community-based strategy, a Mosaic of Engagement. This is the concept of a “community-based strategy to improve the quality of life by reducing the risk of extremist recruitment, radicalization and related criminal activity. This goal is only feasible through engagement of tipping point stakeholders via Neighborhood Alliances, as well as community consensus that [homegrown violent extremism] reduction is the desired by-product of a safe community.”

Committing to Long-term Engagement
Another frequent criticism of previous research efforts was that interest in the Somali community lasted only as long as the research project. Community members complained that they had not seen positive results from supporting research efforts in the past and felt that despite their readiness to help, researchers consistently abandoned the community when the research funding was exhausted.

Recognizing the enormous public safety and national security concerns in the Twin Cities and the chronic socio-economic challenges to the Somali-American community, the report authors committed early in this research to long-term, ongoing work with the community. During our second visit to Minneapolis, multiple sources reported that they were “shocked” that the report authors returned, surprised because previous researchers (evidently) did not return after the initial visit.

This kind of ongoing research profits not just initial information but instead an invaluable relationship that affords the kind of openness and trust that is essential for understanding the constant evolution of terrorist recruiter tactics and targets in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Put another way, ongoing research yields tremendous assets for future projects and initiatives.

Research Limitations
Even as the report authors successfully accessed a complex community, rapidly building trust and learning critical information, there were aspects of the research effort that presented limitations. There were practical challenges, such as the project’s time constraints, limited timeframes where both report authors could set aside other professional responsibilities and travel to Minnesota to conduct the fieldwork, and the freezing Minnesota weather, which tended to keep residents home, indoors, and overall less mobile and available.

The report authors also faced the challenge of conducting fieldwork while simultaneously growing the network of sources and establishing trust with them. During the first visit, we were dependent on a limited number of individuals to assist in identifying and locating people who might participate in the study. In time, the report authors’ network of sources began to grow independently and exponentially, with people eager to talk, contribute, and offer further introductions to worthwhile sources. What is more, the report authors have mentioned this study during lectures and presentations throughout the country, and that has profited additional contacts from people who know residents in the Cedar-Riverside community. Continued research in Minneapolis-St. Paul will inevitably be more productive as we now have dozens of contacts who have stated a readiness to continue working with the report authors.

Another challenge was ensuring that we interviewed a representative cross-section of the Twin Cities Somali community. Many clan and sub-clan allegiances, carried over from Somalia, perpetuate in the cities, and while clan divisions were characterized as antiquated and fading, it remains a factor in developing relationships and capturing an accurate, comprehensive picture of the community. The report authors were told by sources that future research must purposefully engage more clans or else segments of the community will assume that the report authors are advocates of specific groups, rather than objective researchers interested in the entire community. Yet, achieving this is made difficult by the fact that it is considered inappropriate (if not completely taboo) for people outside the community to inquire about clan affiliation. Thus, future research will demand that the report authors navigate an issue about which they cannot directly ask.

These research tactics proved successful in ingratiating the report authors with the community, rapidly yielding critical information and insights. It is remarkable that simply by listening, showing respect and allowing the community time to assess the report authors, sources shared information that is typically not discussed outside the Somali community. One cannot conduct counterterrorism research from behind a desk, and the results of this project are evidence of that. Read the next section.

Report Sections