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


The emergence of the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL) presents a new and dangerous threat to regional stability and global security. ISIL has proven successful in luring young people to its ranks with polished propaganda, sophisticated online messaging and an increasingly complex network of terrorist group alliances. Thousands of young people from around the world have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIL’s campaign to establish a caliphate in the Middle East, committing atrocities with a vicious inhumanity that has left the world both horrified and resolved to stem this growing threat.

One important component of this effort is halting the flow of foreign fighters to ISIL’s ranks. There are an estimated 100 Americans currently fighting with ISIL, and some of these individuals came from the Somali community in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. Unfortunately, the phenomenon of foreign fighter recruitment is not new to the Twin Cities. For years, the Somali al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab has preyed upon the Somali immigrant community in Minnesota, luring young people with a message of nationalism and ultra-strict, violent religious belief.

Given a variety of factors (including community awareness and rejection of violent extremism), al Shabaab recruiting steadily declined since its peak in 2008-2009. In 2014, however, foreign fighter recruiting and departure increased dramatically, except now, young people are traveling to Syria. The question that prompted this study was: what is the cause of this sudden increase in Somali foreign fighters and the abrupt shift in destination? After months of research, fieldwork and community interviews, this report presents an answer.

ISIL’s recruiting strategy in Minnesota leverages a collage of demographic factors, religious ideas, identity uncertainty, ineffective application of government funding, and the challenges all immigrant communities face when assimilating to a new society. Within this complex web of cultural, economic, sociological, religious and civic elements, there are clear correlations revealing why ISIL has been successful in recruiting foreign fighters, and more importantly, what can be done to frustrate the group’s efforts.

This study also reviews the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiatives in Minneapolis-St. Paul. There are individuals and organizations developing innovative, community-led methods for stemming recruitment and addressing community needs. Unfortunately, other ineffective (and often unscrupulous) organizations in Minneapolis-St. Paul are highly effective at securing government funding without following through on the efforts for which the funding was given. Study findings suggest that local, state, and federal monies and support are going to the wrong groups. Thus, the challenge of reducing and stopping recruitment in the Twin Cities is not just a result of increased ISIL activity but also a lack of effective programs available to counter it.

Despite these substantial challenges, solutions are available. The threat from ISIL can be overcome. Engaging with the community, more strategically applying funding, and empowering families and young people to resist predatory recruitment efforts will have an impact on ISIL’s efforts. Presented here are the research, data, fieldwork findings, and community recommendations that collectively reveal important insights for the ongoing effort to, in the words of President Obama, “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.” Read the next section.

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