As Somali Gangs Evolve, So Does Enforcement

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The girl was 12 when the gangsters told her the rule: They would sell her for sex to men outside the gang, but members of the Somali Outlaws or the Somali Mafia would use her for free.

For more than two years she was taken on “missions” to abandoned garages, men’s bathrooms, apartments and hotels, enduring hours with multiple men so gang members could get money, pot or booze. Though her mother confronted two of the men twice early on and warned them the girl wasn’t even 13, they continued to prostitute her.

Eventually some of the gang members took her on the road to new customers in Nashville, Tenn., while the man she called her “boyfriend” allegedly used a cell phone to send images of her engaging in sex acts with men in the car along the way.

The enterprise described in a federal indictment has shocked members of Minnesota’s Somali community, the largest in the U.S. And it suggests that gangs known in recent years for armed robberies, burglaries and even killings of fellow East Africans have evolved into more lucrative activity, and are taking their crimes from Minneapolis to other parts of the country.

“It’s clear the life of the gang in the community is getting much more complicated,” said Omar Jamal, an advocate for the Somali community in Minneapolis. “It’s one thing to go out and have a random action. It’s something quite new to the community to have an organized sex trafficking.”

In recent years, authorities and the community have been increasingly working together to fight the gangs and to steer Somali youth in positive directions. Community centers and mosques created youth basketball and soccer tournaments to keep kids busy, and they’ve held forums to discuss issues as they arise — including a recent discussion on sex trafficking.

Somalis began arriving in Minnesota in the early 1990s — refugees fleeing civil war in their homeland and finding welcome in a state with a strong tradition of helping newcomers. But as young Somalis entered the school system with little or no formal education or English skills, they were targeted by established gangs for being different.

So they formed their own groups.

“They were trying to find identity,” said Hassan Mohamud, the imam at Islamic Da’wah Center, a youth-oriented mosque and cultural center in St. Paul. “They do not belong to Somalis. They do not belong to Islam. They do not belong to America. So they found their own system. … They had good intention. At first the good intention was to help and support each other and protect. But they eventually changed that support system to harm.”

The federal indictment unsealed in November in Tennessee charges 29 people with crimes from sex trafficking to credit card fraud to witness intimidation. It said the accused were members or associates of three Somali gangs — often acting as one larger gang — bent on forcing girls into prostitution for their own profit.

The indictment outlines allegations involving four victims and hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit card fraud. One girl was prostituted in Nashville and in Columbus, Ohio. Another was raped by multiple men in a Minnesota hotel room, the indictment said.

Jamal said that over the years, the Somali gangs realized they needed to generate a steady income. The crimes alleged in the indictment illustrate that at least some might have turned to sex trafficking and credit card fraud as a way to make money.

“It’s a gradual growth of becoming more active, becoming more serious,” Jamal said. “It speaks in volume of how the community has failed collectively to save the minors, especially the girls.”

Most of those indicted in Tennessee are in custody there, said Van Vincent, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case.

When asked about the victim who was just 12 when first sold for sex — and identified in the indictment as “Jane Doe Two” — he would only say: “She is currently safe.”

Jeanine Brudenell, a Minneapolis police officer who has focused on Somali gangs and crime trends for five years and became the department liaison with the community in 2008, said Somali gangs have had a presence in Minneapolis since 2000. Gang activity began growing around 2004, when a 32-year-old Somali woman was murdered during a botched robbery. Brudenell said aggravated robberies increased in 2005 and 2006. And in 2007 and 2008, there were seven gang-related killings in a 10-month period.

“A lot of the crime was being committed against people in their own community. Somali suspects were on the whole victimizing Somali people,” she said, partly because of the dense neighborhoods in which Somalis live.

Gang members started with street robberies, but realized the risk of getting hurt or arrested was too high compared to the profit potential, Brudenell said. The street robberies stopped for a while after a fatal 2006 mugging — with Somalis at first mistakenly considered suspects — drew media attention. After that, the Somali gangs began committing more burglaries of businesses in an attempt to keep a lower profile, she said.

While Brudenell said the street robberies and burglaries still happen, she wasn’t surprised by the gangs’ move to human trafficking. She says the gangs are good at adapting and don’t show the same “small-mindedness” of traditional local gangs, who often skirmish over turf.

Brudenell said those gangs are typically involved in open-air drug markets on street corners, and their behavior is easy to identify — complete with lookouts and overt signs. That’s not the case with Somalis, who typically don’t get tattoos and are harder to document.

She described the Somali gangs as more loosely organized than other gangs. There’s no real leader, so if someone goes to prison, the group won’t stop its activity, she said. There’s also little evidence that people are “jumped in” to Somali gangs, she said. Instead, friends might just ask other friends to hang out and be in the gang.

There are seven Somali gangs in Minneapolis, and a total of about 200 documented Somali gang members and associates, she said — about 10 percent of the roughly 2,100 documented active gang members in the Minneapolis Police Department’s system. The gang members are a small fraction of the Somali population: The U.S. Census says roughly 25,000 Somalis live in Minnesota, while local advocates say the number is much higher.

Brudenell works to build trust in an East African community that came from extreme violence and a corrupt government and traditionally turns to elders to handle problems. She said efforts to curb gang activity have been successful through a combined effort of engagement, intelligence, gang documentation and good police work.

“I think it has made a difference because I’ve been able to identify more people from the community to bring to the table when critical incidents happen,” Brudenell said.

According to police department data, there were 138 gang-associated crimes committed in 2008 in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, an area just east of downtown Minneapolis where many Somali immigrants settled. The number of gang-associated crimes decreased to 100 in 2009, but went back up to 137 in 2010.

Brudenell said the crime ebbs and flows, often quieting down after major incidents. The data seems to back that up: After the killing of a Somali college student in Cedar-Riverside in September 2008, crime figures remained low for the next nine months.

Brudenell’s work is constant. She attends regular meetings with members of the community, and was recently at a Somali community center, signing youth up for a 10-week citizens’ academy geared just for them. The goal is to reach out to the youth, teach them about the legal system, and debunk rumors they may have heard about police.

Officials across the river in St. Paul, where the sex trafficking investigation originated, are also working to build trust with Somali leaders and members of the community. Authorities began looking into the sex trafficking allegations after elders expressed concern to police.

“It’s pretty brave of them to come forward, with the seriousness of the crimes involved,” said St. Paul police Officer Tracy Henry, who specializes in Somali gangs.

Several American cities with high Somali populations, including San Diego and Columbus, Ohio, say they haven’t seen nearly as much gang activity as Minneapolis. Vincent, the federal prosecutor in Tennessee, said Somali gang activity in Nashville is limited, and the activity he’s seen stems from the Minnesota gangs.

Minnesota is also the center of a federal investigation into the travels of roughly 20 young Somali men, believed to have returned to their homeland to join the terror group al-Shabab. There’s no link between the terror investigation and the Somali gang activity, but members of the community say some of the same factors — including isolation, a need to belong to something, no father figure at home — can lead kids down the wrong path.

Mohamud, the imam at Islamic Da’wah Center, said giving kids a place to belong and something to do can keep them out of trouble. His mosque, which opened in 2007, focuses on young people with daily classes and programs like martial arts, youth forums, and soccer and basketball leagues.

“We thought if we focused on youth we’d be successful not only helping the Somali community, but the whole society — all Americans,” Mohamud said.

Some of the youth who spend evenings at his mosque say they’re happy to be there, and away from the lure of gang life.

Elyas Werku, 18, a high school student, said Mohamud’s mosque “saved my life.” Werku, who is part Somali, part Oromo, was never in a gang, but said he used to wish he was. He went to the mosque one day with his uncle, who wanted to pray, and a young man there suggested he attend the mosque’s youth program.

Now, going to the mosque every day, he has no interest in gang membership.

Gang members often miss out on education, and some lack family support. “They don’t feel like they belong to this community.”

“If I spend my whole day here, it’s my best day,” he said.

Abdirahman Haji-Aweis, a 15-year-old student at Higher Ground Academy, goes to the mosque every night to memorize the Quran and learn how Muslims should behave, he said. He sees gangs as a waste of time.

“They’ll say, `We’ve got your back. We’ll be with you.’ But if the police come, they will run. You’ll be alone,” he said.

Arafat Hussein, 15, said going to the mosque keeps him busy. “It gives me something to do. … you can’t just sit around,” he said. Of the gang members: “They don’t have anything better to do, or they get reeled in.”

Mohamud said he has gone on the streets to try to bring gang members into his fold.

“There is a place for them,” he said. “The Islamic Da’wah Center is their home.”

One man who says he was a gang member got a visit from Mohamud in the hospital in 2007, after a stabbing to the neck put him in a coma. Abdulkadir Sharif, 31, came to the United States in 1996 at the age of 17. Like other Somalis he was placed in high school, with no reading, writing or English skills. He managed to survive in school for 30 days, then left because students were pushing him around, and he became involved in gangs.

“I learned everything I learned from the street,” he said. Today, he works security for the mosque. “Now I don’t have to look over my shoulder. I don’t have to carry a gun. I don’t have to worry about if somebody is going to hurt me,” Sharif said. “All I know is God watch out for me. I’m doing the right thing.”

Now, he says, he’s using his own experiences to get kids out of gangs.

“I’m not going to stop until everything change, or until I be dead,” Sharif said. “If I be dead, people are going to understand, I did my best I could.”

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

  • Billy

    Why would there even be a comment box below this article?

    What kind of comments would you expect from a story like this?

    Sick, sick,sick

    • Allah

      So true Billy…now go drink the Kool Aid and go back to sleepy….

  • DaveM

    They came here for opportunity, and look what they did with their freedom.

  • tamtam

    “finding welcome in a state with a strong tradition of helping newcomers.” It’s called way-to-generous welfare. State govt’s business as usual.

  • KFC

    Send them home!

  • markH

    Once again, the multiculturalist elites have imported the filth and debauchery of ignorant, violent, religious-based cultures. We have had enough of this nonsense-these people need to go, and they need to go now!

    • Wesly

      Th gangs actions have nothing to do with your religion. Is it your religion’s hatred for anything that is outside your group your problem?

  • Billy

    Doesn’t a story like this just make you want to hate and be all that more prejudest?
    It sure does me..

    • sue

      no, because there are sick people in every culture, race, creed, origin. humans are suck people, it doesn’t matter what color your skin is or what god you worship. this is the world we live in.

  • Kevin

    Import violent people…expect violence…send them all back home….let them sell 12 year olds there….enough of this bs….look and learn from Europe…

  • JWise

    Send them home? We may as well turn them into food and start carrying it grocery stores. It would be less cruel the sending them back to Somali. We are such a good, giving country that we invite all these political refugees into our lands, the we forget about them. Guy was dropped into high school with no language, social or cultural skills. Y’all need to stop suffocating and find a way to introduce these people, especially the children, gradually into our culture and education systems.

    • travis

      agreed. getting them here is only half of making them american. with time assimilation will happen.

    • Winta

      thank you Jwise….you have a lot more heart than all this people with -ve comments added together. I am a refugee, I am studying to be a doctor. I taking advantage of the opportunity because I had people there to guide and direct me. We need to help them integrate into the system rather than standing behind our smiling walls.

    • Eat At JWise's

      So you’d rather eat them than send them home? And you think those who want to send them home are bad?

    • D-Rock

      OK pal, we need immigrants who come to this country and contribute by working or running a business, not leaching off local welfare and public health benefits. I’ve walked through “Little Mogadishu” ,can’t believe that area is now nicknamed after a 3rd world country capital btw, during a work day and have seen many many many Eastern Africans just hanging out not working doing whatever. They really need to turn off the welfare magnet in this state

    • Gary

      If that’s your argument, then they should be kissing our (i.e. law-abiding, tax-paying, legal citizens regardless of color) collective a$$es every single day. They’re LUCKY to be living here, paying no taxes, getting by without having to learn the language or our customs. This country was founded on immigrants who built themselves up from nothing — what more do we need to do to help these borderline savages? Instead, they bully us, terrorize us, take advantage of us, and then expect a paycheck on the first of the month. B.S.! Adapt or go back to your hellhole where you really belong!

    • Clarence

      WAH-WAH-WAH…. another “bleeding heart liberal” crys again. Were you one of the bleeding hearts that brought them here to begin with??? Then, it’s your problem, your fault mr & mrs. LIBERAL. Now, FIX-IT!!

      • CSW

        Hey Clarence, before you cast out the liberals, first learn how to spell check. You’d look a heck of a lot smarter if you did.

  • Hayward

    What goes on within their gangs makes the rest look like playground play on a Saturday afternoon. Wake up Minnesota. These people are extremely dangerous.

  • JWise

    OMG! Do you guys realize what you’re saying about Americans. God help us that there aren’t too many of you. Read the Third Reich, and you will find your place in the world.

    • Kevin

      Your a moron….people like you are the reason this state is now a garbage dump….and trust me moron….there are many like us….and we grow day by day…we are tired of paying the price for your liberal bs….and we are rising to take our state…our home….back…you can leave with the immigrants…

      • travis

        people like you didn’t learn something as a child kevin. Remember everyone, if you don’t agree with him, get ready to feel the wrath of kevin. And remember, its the liberals who are the nazis, not republicans who are calling for purifying minnesota.

      • Fred

        It is the childish mentality of people like you that give people in general a bad name. Hate and venom for what others get and you don’t will get you nowhere. You call me a liberal for trying to explain a comment. Your knowledge of what I think where this start is going and vote is minute. Your ancestors were immigrants at one time also. After a point I really doubt the natives were happy with that either. If you want less immigrants try advocating that the groups that bring them here be responsible for them.

    • D-Rock

      Anyone who makes a Nazi comparison in 2011 instantly loses credibility.

      • Fred

        Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. There is a lot of superiority and hatred for what is not white christian on this board. The Third Reich was trying to get rid of all that was not Aryan. Sorry someone has to try to explain it to you.

  • mzzed

    This is Way Sick…I say ship the little _____ Back to their own country or better yet maybe they should be put in prison so they can feel what they did to that poor girl….!!! sick little boys!!!

  • jayne

    call it racest call it what ever the hell you want . what about the victims ,ya you know us, the white americans, the people that pay all the bills in this country . it has been said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.well the usa is quickly becoming a sesspool . these save the world do-gooding sob’s need to stop and smell the coffee. mabe if there 12 year old daughter were one of the victims of this bs they would change there ways.

  • Our Future

    This is the second article I have read comments from people living around Somali people and I am ashamed and disappointed in commenter’s; nevertheless, I am glad people are voicing their opinions. It takes the whole village to raise children. It’s going to take effort on everyone’s part to help Somali people assimilate into the community. Glad light is shining on the problem.

    “We thought if we focused on youth we’d be successful not only helping the Somali community, but the whole society — all Americans,” Mohamud said.

    “There is a place for them,” he said. “The Islamic Da’wah Center is their home.”

    God Bless the Somalians! I pray all Somalians at all ages learn to read, speak, and write in English.

    • Clarence

      Assimilate my as_!! Send’m back to Somalia NOW!! You are a really blind liberal-you think you can reason with thugs from Somalia, you can’t, you ’round’m up and shipp’m back immediately to their dirty-little “pirate-state” !!!

      • winta

        Wow! It is depressing to read what people truly feel in these comments. I had always felt welcomed before this, people here are colder than the weather but people like Jwise and IMHO is why i am still here.

      • IMHO

        If you are so great yourself why haven’t you helped them? If you are so smart why haven’t you taught them English, writing or how to read? I am glad the Somalians are here because it shows the whole world who Minnesotan born people truly are. A bunch of fake Christians. It is not even easy for out of state holy white person to assimilate with true Minnesotans, no matter what race you are. It is a cold state.

  • Mary

    Quit taking in everyone elses throw backs

  • Billy

    Give them guns so they can kill each other off. Then Send whatevers left back.

    • sue moua

      Police should come up with stricter rules because if gangs only go to jail for 1-2 years they might not learn their lesson. They should arrest gangs for 10-15 years and whip them every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturdays. Gang fights might kill other innocent people, too. If whoever is a gang, police should just arrest them. But the problem is that some gangs might not listen and they might start the fight again. If whoever saw a gang fights you should call the cops. If gang won’t listen to the cops, they should hit them with a bat. If they still won’t listen hit them with 2 metal bats. Gang should choose the the right side before too late. Some gang didn’t listen and up in jail then finally they become homeless.

  • Eric Smith

    I’ve spoken and interacted with Somali’s where I live and I can tell you from personal experience, they’re all worthless. I was having a bbq in my backyard when a somalian sat down 10 feet away staring at the cooler full of beer. I went to throw something away and he pulled my sleeve and asked for a beer, I said No and the next day my tires were slashed.

    • Mohamed

      Beer and pork hahah…A somali muslim..I guess the gangs were in your backyard you should have called the police..

    • Sue

      lol youre judging an entire race based on THAT! first of all, do you have proof they slashed your tires? and TWO, i know a lot of white people who have been to my parties and have done the same thing. i just hope you are kidding, because if not, you are very ignorant.

    • William

      I am sure along the way plenty of other people you have met would do the same for you (slash your tires).

    • Dear Eric

      You judge thousands and thousands of Somalians according to how one Somalian reacts. Was your reaction right? Was the Somalians reaction correct? I can not judge, however, someone else may have seen it as opportunity to introduce themselves and make a friend or possibly teach English. Another may have invited the Somalian to the BBQ and if of age enjoy a beer together. You reap what you sow.

      • Carlos

        Oh give me a break! Have YOU ever invited yourself over to a private BBQ empty handed, rudely (he pulled at his sleeve) asked for a beer, and your reaction when you were told “no” was slash the person’s tires? Quit apologizing for these people! They could care less about you and your white guilt — all they’re doing is looking for a handout.

      • Bluepmil

        Sit down with a Mu Slime and teach him english over a pork sandwich and a beer. Get real.

  • Albert

    This behavior is sick, but is present in ALL gangs throughout history. Hispanic in LA in the 30s and 40s, Chinese in turn of the century SF and NY, Black in LA in the 70s, and on and on.

    Should we ship back ALL Chinese due to the Tongs?

    Never mind – this anonymous flame mob would say send back everyone who isn’t Northern European.

  • Karl

    Somalis, not people but not monkeys, somewhere in between.

    • Clarence

      I agree! The male somalis can’t even drive without running you off the road!!

  • shirley

    I think it’s apparent the somalians don’t value any one’s life, not even their own people. They need to learn to respect our freedom.

  • Clarence


    • Clarence

      The liberals of Minnesota brought them here in the 90’s, so let the liberals deal with them and shipp’m back to Somalia. It’s the liberals fault!

      • Ralph

        Lutheran social services and catholic charities are responsible. That will be the day when Catholics are called liberal. It was a Good Question a few weeks ago. If incivility and profanity are the only way you can speak then perhaps you should not be commenting.

  • Bob

    The community is “shocked” come on they know it happens all the time in their community that is how they are rasied. If they can’t get something they take it. Got to use that money to buy Khat you know.

  • Gary

    THE UNITED STATES MUST BECOME ISOLATIONISTS AGAIN! We have more than enough problems without taking in the trash from 3rd world countries that aren’t even wanted in their own homelands! Only in America can you live without learning our language or customs, bully and terrorize our law-abiding citizens, and still be able to take advantage of our tax dollars and services. We need to fix our own problems before even THINKING of helping these animals who don’t appreciate everything we do for them!

  • Rick

    So how long before someone comes in & marks all these comments as “offense?” I am sorry, but I don’t want them here. They contribute nothing to society, will not assimilate, & expect everyone else to bend over backwards for them. If you don’t- you are slapped w/ a racism lawsuit. And before you slam me for being racist, keep in mind that the Somalis do not get along w/ anyone. They do not like people who are different from them- no matter what color, religion, etc they are.

    • Ralph

      Individually I have known a few. They are fine people. As a group if you meet hatred (if these posts are representative of the population in general) how would you react? You would close up within your group.

      Hi Sahara

      • Katy

        I have met quite a few as well and have never had a good experience w/ any of them. Let’s see…. trying to steal my identity, almost running me over on numerous occasions b/c they ran red lights, refusing to check me out b/c of what I was buying at the store, and let’s not even get into the countless racist/sexist comments I have heard from the mouths of Somalis. Sorry, you may have had a good experience but I have not. And I agree w/ Rick- they do not seem to want to assimilate at all.

  • John

    I’m sure everyone is disturbed by this, but is anyone really shocked?
    At what point to people stand up and say enough is enough?

  • Bluepmil

    They are a peaceful people with a peaceful cult religion. Bring sheri a Law

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