MINNEAPOLIS — Every evening after work, Abdirizak Bihi strolls through neighborhood parks where young Somalis shoot hoops and play soccer. He tells jokes, urges them to clean up their trash and even grabs the basketball to take a few shots.
It may seem like fun, but Bihi’s eyes are scanning the playgrounds and ball courts of Minneapolis for something sinister — anyone who might try to recruit these kids to join a jihad overseas.
If Bihi doesn’t show up for his personal patrol for five, six or seven days, “somehow the word gets out, and they’re back,” he said.
Community members and law enforcement officials are on a mission to stamp out terror recruiting in Minneapolis, home to the largest Somali population in the United States.
A handful of people from the community have left to join militant groups in Syria within the last year, according to authorities.
The anti-jihad work is not unlike longstanding efforts to keep young people out of gangs in any number of other U.S. cities. And just like street gangs, militant groups tend to prey on the vulnerable via the Internet or to strike up relationships through small group meetings or one-on-one conversation in parks, mosques or even hospitals.
Bihi’s mission is also personal. His own nephew was recruited to fight for the al-Qaida-linked group al-Shabab in 2008 and died in Somalia.
He said he sees unfamiliar men with “hostile” eyes approach teens in parks. The kids describe how the men talk about the Quran — never about jihad at first — and scold them for wearing shorts or associating with infidels.
“It’s about scaring the hell out of them first, telling them that they are bad people and that they can make them good,” Bihi said. They leave when he approaches.
Terror recruiting is not new here: More than 22 young Minnesotans have traveled to Somalia since 2007 to take up arms with al-Shabab. Back then, authorities found a handful of people were holding secret meetings to promote the cause. Now social media are playing a prevalent role, according to FBI spokesman Kyle Loven.
The Facebook page of one man who says he lives in Minneapolis and is a “full-time servant of Allah” features the Islamic State flag as his profile photo. A Twitter account believed to belong to a man who left Minnesota to join al-Shabab in 2008 is updated daily with tweets applauding Islamic State militants and criticizing the U.S.
One al-Shabab video — partly filmed in Minneapolis, including scenes from inside the airport — features a Minnesotan who calls Somalia “Disneyland” and urges others to join him. Another al-Shabab video urges people in Minnesota to answer the call of Allah and go to jihad “wherever it is possible.”
But pinpointing on-the-ground recruitment remains difficult. Loven said the FBI wants to “determine if there is a ground game here and who is involved.”
Several teens or young adults approached by The Associated Press declined to speak about any experiences with recruiters. They are fearful of drawing attention to themselves, jeopardizing their personal safety or being targeted by law enforcement, said Omar Jamal, Chief Executive officer of American Friends of Somalia.
Some are skeptical, including Burhan Mohumed, a 24-year-old who works with high school kids. He said he’s seen no evidence of recruitment on the ground.
“If there was a recruiter, believe me, half of the people here would call authorities,” he said.
Jamal, Bihi and others cannot say for sure that those approaching young people in parks and elsewhere are recruiting for a terrorist group. But the community is on guard regardless.
One local mosque banned a man this summer after he was accused of speaking about radical ideas. The man, who has not been charged, released a statement to the AP saying the accusations are baseless.
Jamal said young people have told him about small gatherings in the basements of homes or mosques that begin as discussions about the history of Islam or other educational topics but morph into something else over time.
“They’ll say, ‘Next week, we’ll talk about what is jihad,’” Jamal said. “It’s a very slow, very careful process. They don’t just jump right in.”
Evan Kohlmann, who tracks terrorists and terror activity as chief information officer at Flashpoint Global Partners, said the drawn-out method allows recruiters to eliminate spies or those who are considered unreliable.
“This is a part of the indoctrination process. They are trying to brainwash people,” he said. “When it’s face to face, it’s a lot easier to get people interested or used to the idea of beheading someone.”
Minneapolis and St. Paul will take part in a Department of Justice pilot program designed to combat recruitment of American fighters. U.S. Attorney Andy Luger said the plan will focus more government resources on building trust.
“We need to clearly tell the community, ‘Yes, you can trust the law enforcement. Yes, they are after the bad guys. They are not after you,’” Bihi said.
Ahmed Ismail, Athletic Director of the West Bank Athletic Club, who is known by many kids as simply “coach,” said keeping young people engaged in school, sports and other positive activities makes them less vulnerable to radical messages.
“We are saving their lives,” he said. “I don’t want to see these kids just dying for nothing.”