Minneapolis and Somalia - The Outlaw State of the World's Most Dangerous Place
There seemed, at least to my European eyes, to be quite a lot wrong with the picture. Wasn’t there enough paranoia in America’s airports already, without encouraging its citizens to spy on one another in this Orwellian way? It felt like an affront to civil liberties in this supposed Land of the Free. The Port Authority’s determination to avoid any accusation of racial profiling was also laughable. The figure in the poster’s foreground conscientiously phoning the cops was an indeterminate brown, while the suspect in the background was white. He looked to me less like a terrorist than a naughty teenager looking for somewhere to smoke an illicit cigarette.
But however exaggerated the reasons for fear and suspicion might have been, I knew they were not groundless. Support for al- Qaida – or for its affiliates, such as al-Shabaab – was real enough in the US, above all in the city to which I was headed. A Minneapolis Somali called Omer Abdi Mohamed had only recently pleaded guilty to a federal charge of conspiring to recruit fighters for the insurgency. The case of ‘Brother Omer’ had been cited by Congressman Peter King – who was fresh back in Washington from his address to British MPs, and about to chair another Homeland Security Committee hearing into extremism among American Muslims – as evidence that ‘jihadi sympathizers’ were still active in the Minneapolis community.
‘With al-Shabaab’s large cadre of American jihadis and un- questionable ties to al-Qaida, we must face the reality that al-Shabaab is a growing threat to our homeland,’ he said.
In 2008 when the FBI launched Operation Rhino, as they called their investigation in the Twin Cities, they quickly discovered that many of the young men who had gone missing in Somalia had known each other, either because they had once been friends at the same school, or else because they had prayed together at the same south central mosque, the Abubakar as-Saddique Islamic Center. It was this last detail that really alarmed the FBI. Were the young men recruited by militant Muslims preaching at the Abubakar? If so, how had these preachers managed to operate in the heartland of America for so long, wholly undetected by the DHS, the vast, multi-agency Department of Homeland Security, which had been created a decade ago specifically to ensure that 9/11 could never be repeated? In the Twin Cities, it seemed, America’s worst night- mare was in danger of coming true.
Between 75,000 and 100,000 Somalis live in Minneapolis and St Paul, comfortably the largest concentration in the States, although it was not immediately obvious why. Minnesota’s legendary win- ters, where temperatures routinely drop to minus 15 degrees celsius and snowfalls of eight feet have been known, are the planetary opposite of the desert heat of the Horn of Africa. It was, as the locals joked, a very cold place for a hotbed.
Their presence, I eventually discovered, was down to the Lutherans. Minnesota’s first settlers were farmers from Germany and Scandinavia, and Lutherans still run the state’s social services with an efficiency and generosity of spirit of which the Great Reformer himself would have approved. A number of voluntary Somali migrants, mostly professionals with ambitions to study or to set up businesses, had been drawn to the Twin Cities even before the civil war by the abundance of jobs and social housing on offer, at a time when the local economy was conspicuously booming. Word soon spread of the good life to be had in Minnesota, making the state the destination of choice when the main refugee exodus began in the early 1990s. The US Immigration Department had a policy of distributing new arrivals evenly around the country, but the Somalis, with their long nomadic tradition of scouting out the greenest pastures, seldom stayed put in a place that didn’t suit them, and a wave of secondary migration took place.
There was no shortage of work for the newcomers, even when they didn’t speak English. Many of them began their life abroad on an assembly line at companies like 3M, a manufacturing con- glomerate headquartered on the edge of St Paul, or at the IBM computer plant at Rochester, 90 miles to the south. Many others did as the first wave of Somalis had done, and set up their own businesses. By 2008 there were some six hundred Somali-run businesses in oper- ation in the Twin Cities. It seemed, on the face of it, to be a remarkably successful immigration story. Where had it gone wrong?
It was a warm Sunday evening and the local football team, the Minnesota Vikings, had just lost a home match to their old rivals, the Detroit Lions. Their pasty-skinned and purple-shirted fans, many of them noisily drunk, had spilled on to the pavement from a cluster of bars and restaurants where rock music blared at the junction of Cedar and Washington. Barely a hundred yards further on, a strip began that was dotted with Somali-run snack bars, hawala offices, a grocery called Afrik and a restaurant called Masha’allah. Somalis sunned themselves outside coffee shops or passed up and down the pavement, laughing into their mobile phones. It all looked and felt far more relaxed – more Americanized – than I had been led to expect. The proximity of the drinkers up the street apparently presented no cultural difficulty at all. Directly opposite the Plaza there was even a ‘world pub’ called the Nomad. Could such a city really be the West’s leading exporter of Somali jihadis?
Published with permission from Da Capo Press.