Video of FBI Visit of Muslim Activist Highlights Disturbing Nature of Federal Counter-Extremism Programs

As Muslim youth activists in Minneapolis debate a federal counter-extremism program, one films himself resisting an FBI visit.

Photo Credit: wikipedia

It was three days before Burhan Mohumed was to co-host a forum in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis about the government-sponsored Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs, which targeted Muslim communities in a broad-brush fashion. Mohumed had helped line up a panel of young Muslim activists and students intending to speak out against the new CVE program being piloted in the community, and was looking forward to critiquing a program he felt would spread fear and do severe harm to the community’s social fabric. But when two FBI agents showed up unannounced outside his apartment three days before the event on July 22 and demanded to be let in without a warrant, his training in how to invoke his rights was put to the test.

“You got a warrant?” Mohumed asked the unidentified agents outside his door.

“We don’t need a warrant,” the first agent responded.

As he refused to open the door, the 26-year-old first-generation immigrant from Somalia was already recording what would become a three-minute exchange, unbeknownst to the agents. Mohumed insisted that the agents were attempting to violate his constitutional rights by demanding he speak to them without an attorney present. They persisted, even refusing to identify their full names. When Mohumed asked to speak to his attorney, one agent responded with a veiled threat: “You could just make this easier or make this hard.”

The agents eventually relented. In a closing exchange, they said they were visiting Mohumed, “concerning radicalism in the community,” to which he said he didn’t know anything about.

This attempt at a warrantless interrogation by FBI agents is an experience familiar to countless Muslims in America. In many cases, those visited by the FBI are less familiar with their rights than Mohumed was, and they allow the agents into their homes. This can lead to further investigation and even prosecution. In the case of Ibragim Todashev, a former friend of the Tsarnaev brothers responsible for the Boston bombings—but who had no involvement in the crime—a visit from FBI agents led to his death under disputed circumstances at the hands of an officer with a long record of abuse.

The video filmed by Mohumed shows how frightening the experience can be, and how determined the FBI is to surveill Muslims without clear suspicion of any crime. But it also provides an example of how an apparent fishing expedition by federal law enforcement can be easily flouted by citizens willing to assert their rights.

'I’ve never felt more unsafe'

A Google Maps search confirms that the address the two agents gave Mohumed houses the FBI’s Minneapolis Division. But instead of following up with the agents who refused to identify themselves, Mohumed called the Council on American Islamic Relations’ (CAIR) Minnesota chapter and reported the incident to a staff attorney.

The exact reason for the agents’ visit is unclear, but it’s apparent that they at least wanted Mohumed to know he was on their radar. A youth organizer for the nonprofit West Bank Community Coalition and a graduate student of psychology, Mohumed has been quoted in the national media as a friend and supporter of the three men recently convicted of conspiracy to provide material support to ISIS in the form of personnel in Syria. Mohumed regularly attended the trial proceedings and demonstrated outside of the courthouse in downtown Minneapolis, denouncing what he saw as a politically motivated thought crime prosecution.

Near the end of the trial, Mohumed was banned by Judge Michael Davis from attending the remainder of the proceedings after he was caught up in a verbal dispute outside the courthouse involving two family members of Abdirizak Warsame, one of the government’s cooperating witnesses. Mohumed maintains he was trying to deescalate the situation, but he also refused to identify himself when he was detained by the courthouse deputy marshals.

Mohumed has also been regularly speaking over the phone with one of the convicted men, Guled Omar, who is currently in prison awaiting sentencing. It is therefore plausible that Mohumed’s outspoken support for the men drew the attention of the FBI, whose flawed and debunked theories of terrorist radicalization openly classify devotion to social activism and increasing religiosity as predictive indicators of someone who might commit a future act of violence.

“I was terrified,” Mohumed said in a private message, regarding the visit. “Kept my cool. But I’ve never felt more unsafe than at that moment.”

Minneapolis as a CVE pilot program

“I’m sure a lot of y’all have seen Captain Phillips,” Filsan Ibrahim says to an audience of close to 150 people seated inside the gymnasium of the Brian Coyle Center.

Burhan Mohumed addresses the crowd at CVE forum in Minneapolis on July 25.

It’s Monday evening, July 25, and the CVE event Mohumed helped organize is going forward as planned. CVE is an initiative broadly encompassing various law enforcement agencies through which the federal government seeks to counter the recruitment of its own citizens by foreign terrorist groups, such as Islamic State. But for Ibrahim, and the 12 speakers seated alongside her, it’s a program that stigmatizes an entire religion and particularly, an entire ethnic group. Somalis are the biggest fish in Minnesota, she says, meaning they are easy targets for discrimination. She continues:

“The perception of Muslims are like, we’re terrorists, we’re up to no good, and this is what is going to fix us to get us on the right track. Let us speak for ourselves. Let us tell you what we want, what we need. Don’t be like, yeah, we have two million dollars and your kids are dangerous and this is what you need.”

Underpinning CVE programs is the unproven assumption that a combination of outreach initiatives and social services for disaffected communities can somehow stem the tide of individuals inspired to partake in various political conflicts overseas, particularly the ongoing Syrian civil war. Separately, the FBI has put forward a more controversial CVE initiative called Shared Responsibility Committees, in which educators and mental health practitioners could conceivably be obliged to violate the confidentiality on which their professions rest if their students or clients are deemed potential threats by the government.

For the city of Minneapolis, being chosen as one of three test cities for the CVE pilot program has not taken place without significant opposition, particularly for much of the city’s large Muslim and Somali immigrant communities who feel the program unfairly focuses on countering so-called Islamic extremism while ignoring white supremacist and Christian violence. In September of last year, the Department of Justice, which is spearheading efforts in the District of Minnesota, unveiled the launch of the newly dubbed Building Community Resilience program, in which a local organization called YouthPrise would be placed in charge deciding how to distribute the federal CVE funds to various nonprofits of their choosing, such as the group Big Brothers Big Sisters, which runs a Somali youth mentoring program.

Yet a few months before, nearly 50 Muslim organizations signed a statement released by the Council on American Islamic Relations Minnesota chapter opposing CVE initiatives because they combine “policing and counter-terrorism efforts with social services and outreach targeting only one religious and ethnic community." Around the same time, a group of Somali activists published an op-ed in MinnPost that stated, “We need our community organizations and local institutions to be independent of law enforcement bodies."

When Andy Luger, the United States attorney tasked with implementing CVE in Minneapolis was recently asked by MinnPost to address this concern, his answer seemed to all but confirm CAIR’s characterization of the program: “The terrorists decided to focus on the Somali community. That was their decision. I deal with facts.”

The DOJ’s website also raises the idea of involving public schools in counter-extremism initiatives. At a White House summit announcing the CVE Pilot Program at the beginning of 2015, Courtney Kiernat, the former executive director of External Partnerships for Minneapolis Public Schools announced a “youth worker intervention model” exclusively for the “Somali community.”

“Well-trained community representatives working in the school systems will help spot identity issues and disaffection...Our intervention model will bring trained youth workers together with parents and mental health professionals to address identity issues and disaffection at school, root causes of radicalization,” said Kiernat, indicating that Minneapolis schools would be actively seeking out potential terrorists among their own students.

When asked last October what the current status of this program was, Kiernat said in email that the school district had deployed the program in collaboration with the nonprofit Youth Coordinating Board for one school year, but it was discontinued due to “funding issues.” However, she stated that she was able to bring the program back to North Minneapolis’ Henry High School and was looking for private funding to expand the program.

'No conversation about white supremacy' 

A recurring sentiment among the panelists at Mohumed’s event is one of exclusion, in addition to stigmatization. “There was $300,000, put on the table to say, hey, let’s help the youth but nobody came to us about it,” says Ahlam Musse, a local high school student.

“Not a single time have the people that are getting the money, nor have, has anybody that supports this program actually came up to us, the youth,” adds another speaker, Mahamed Salad.

Mohamud Mohamed, a student at Augsburg College, paces back in forth in front of the two tables as he moderates the panel. “How do you feel about stereotypes, negative perceptions of us?” he asks.

“At first they made us believe that CVE is a good thing…it’s making people think we’re criminals and we’re evil,” says one high school student on the panel.

“To me, the CVE program is trying to instill fear because this is a program that wants to help and, like, stop terrorism,” says another panelist, Iqbal Abdi. “Why is the Department of Justice…creating programs to, like make kids become better?...they should be going after criminals. So clearly they’re calling us criminals and they’re coming after us.”

When the mic is passed to Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of CAIR's Minnesota chapter, he cites the letter signed last year by the Muslim organizations in Minnesota opposing CVE to assert that “the Department of Homeland Security and others have completely ignored the same community that they say this program will benefit.”

“But when we talk of CVE, there is no conversation about white supremacy, which is a threat to all of us. And if you think white supremacy is not a threat, tell the five young men who were shot just a few weeks ago by what could be believed as someone who aspires to that ideology of superiority.”

He’s referring to a shooting that occurred earlier this summer in the University of Minnesota’s Dinkytown neighborhood. Five young men dressed in Muslim attire were approached by two white men who allegedly cursed Islam and tried to pick a fight before one of them opened fire at the Muslims as they sped away in their car. Two of the men in the backseat sustained leg injuries, so the driver rushed them to the hospital. The federal government is now investigating the incident as a hate crime. And yet the issue of xenophobic hate crimes had already been brought to the fore in Minnesota when earlier last fall, a Swahili-speaking patron at an Applebee’s restaurant was attacked by another customer for not speaking English.

For Burhan Mohumed, being presumed as predisposed to extremist violence in the context of the actual violence being done to Muslims and people of color in Minnesota only amplifies what he sees as a double standard.

“I think the Dinkytown incident really captures the real violence that’s perpetrated against us as Muslims in this country,” Mohumed said, a couple weeks after the panel. “You know, for that type of...program that, again, sort of highlights us as an issue, as a problem, when we’re constantly the victims of this type of harassment and this type of violence, you know, it really is hypocritical.”

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Joseph Sabroski is an independent journalist covering national security and civil liberties in Minneapolis, MN. You can follow him on Twitter @joesabro.