ON May 3rd two Muslim men with rifles attacked a security guard at a venue in Texas showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Both were shot dead before they killed anyone—they were incompetent terrorists, fortunately. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. There is no evidence that it had any direct involvement, but the gunmen may have been inspired by the global jihadist movement. One of them, Elton Simpson, was questioned by the FBI in 2010 and later convicted of lying to them. He denied that he had made plans to go to Somalia and become a jihadist, when in fact he had.
For Richard Stanek, sheriff of Hennepin County, Minnesota (which covers most of Minneapolis), the story is all too familiar. For eight years he has been searching for the “magic trick” to stop young men from joining Islamic extremists, especially in Somalia. He has been called as an expert witness before Congress and shared his insights with officials from 38 countries.
Since the 1990s more than 100,000 Somalis have come to America as refugees. Many settled in the Minneapolis-St Paul area, which today is home to around 75,000 immigrants from Somalia and their children. The Cedar-Riverside neighbourhood in the Twin Cities is sometimes called “Little Mogadishu”. After they arrived, Somalis clustered and kept to themselves; many intended to return home as soon as the civil war was over. Somali women made little effort to learn English.
Since Mr Stanek became sheriff in 2007, several dozen young Somali-American men from Minnesota have disappeared to join the Shabab, a group of Islamist fighters in Somalia linked to al-Qaeda. But “It really hit home in 2009, when Shirwa Ahmed blew himself up outside of Mogadishu,” the sheriff says. Ahmed was the first known American suicide-bomber—and a graduate of a Minneapolis high school.
Over the past two years the danger has increased, as young Somali men, and some young women, attempt to join Islamic State (IS) rather than the Shabab. Yet Mr Stanek feels more confident. His relationship with the Somali community has much improved. He has made friends with a local imam, hired Haissan Hussein to be the first Somali deputy sheriff in Minnesota, and created a six-member team to build “communities of trust” with Hennepin County’s many cultures. The team includes Abdi Mohamed, a Somali who immigrated in the 1990s, whose full-time job is to liaise with Somalis. And Minneapolis has become one of three pilot cities for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), an initiative by the Obama administration under which police try to connect with Muslim groups through local events, mentoring and youth programmes.
These closer contacts, says Mr Stanek, are the reason why federal authorities know much more about the six young Somalis from Minnesota who were arrested trying to obtain false passports and were charged on April 19th with trying to leave America to join IS. That success, he says, is proof that many of the parents of youngsters who are at risk realise that their interests are aligned with those of the police. Even so, according to Andy Luger, the top federal prosecutor in Minnesota, recruitment for terror and jihad remains a particular problem in the state.
On a sunny morning this week, Mr Mohamed, Mr Stanek’s liaison officer, walked into a Starbucks café in Seward, another neighbourhood where many Somalis live, and was warmly greeted by an all-male Somali clientele sipping coffee. He sat down with Yusuf, who came to Minneapolis in 2003 and works in a chemistry lab as well as mentoring children after school. “One problem is the generational gap between parents and children,” says Yusuf. The culture and identity of home and the outside world don’t fit together. Another problem is absent fathers, either not around at all or working so hard to make ends meet that they are hardly ever home.
Somalis are one of the most troubled groups of immigrants. Many young Somali men are in prison; many Somalis of both sexes drop out of high school. Unemployment hovers around 21%, the highest of Minnesota’s five largest immigrant groups. More than half of Minnesota’s Somalis are poor. Many are isolated from other immigrants and even from other Muslims, who find them prickly, proud and standoffish.
No clear pattern of IS recruiting in Minnesota can be discerned. The six who were recently arrested were largely self-radicalised through the internet or lured by “peer-to-peer” recruiting: a process by which friends persuade friends to join a terrorist group, compare notes on how to raise money for a flight, and make connections with middlemen in Turkey. One of the young men, Guled Ali Omar, was the brother of a would-be jihadist who left for Somalia in 2007 and remains a fugitive.
No mastermind recruiter seems to have been at work, though Abdi Nur, a young Somali from Minneapolis who joined IS last year and is now in Syria, seems to be wooing midwestern jihadists. IS’s military success—it claims to have restored the old Caliphate—is probably its most potent recruiting tool. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born writer who was once a zealot but now campaigns for a liberal Islamic reformation, says she would probably have joined IS, had it been around when she was young and impressionable.
Somalis feel targeted both by the extremists, who lure away their children, and by non-Muslim Americans, who suspect them of terrorism, says Jaylani Hussein of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Minnesota. They are especially fearful of CVE, which they think will amount to a giant spying operation camouflaged as social services. Mr Stanek agrees that “countering violent extremism” sounds confrontational—but he would happily take the promised federal funds and expand his community-engagement team from six members to twelve.