COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — As Islamic State propagandists set their sights on recruiting Western youths through slickly produced videos, newscasts, blogs and tweets, U.S. cities with large Muslim populations are reaching out to fight the threat — and finding that one size does not fit all.
Two cities in Maine are mining their substantial Somali communities as they recruit officers and teenage cadets.
In Columbus, leaders of the Somali community, which is overwhelmingly Muslim, meet frequently with law enforcement, and a mosque gives youngsters an outlet for their energies.
And in Jersey City, New Jersey, with a history of connections to terrorism and mistrust of authorities by its large Muslim immigrant population, the city’s police department has formed an advisory council with local Arab-American leaders, and the recreation department will provide youths with sports, chess and other activities similar to the outreach used to combat street gangs.
“The goal on this is to really stay in front of it and have consistent outreach that reflects the community,” said Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop. “You have to talk to young people about what’s important to them on a cultural front, and the important thing is to do it on their terms, not yours.”
The threat of recruitment by extremist groups has come into sharp focus in recent months with a string of arrests, including in Minnesota and Ohio, and just this week in Boston, where authorities shot to death a knife-wielding man they say wanted to kill police officers and had been recorded making a statement that the FBI interpreted as a reference to Islamic State propaganda videos.
Many cities are doing outreach to stem the threat, some with different motivations. Minneapolis, Boston and Los Angeles are participating in a federal pilot program to create opportunities for youth and those considered at risk for joining extremist groups. Some activists worry the program’s leadership by federal prosecutors means it could become an intelligence-gathering mission.
But in Columbus, Jersey City and Portland, Maine, criticism is muted, perhaps due to authorities’ low-key approach.
The challenge of steering youths away from the temptations of radical ideologues hits close to home in Jersey City. Some plotters of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing attended a mosque there, and the Sept. 11 attacks across the Hudson River also reverberated.
“As law enforcement started casting around and trying to predict and interdict the next terrorist plot, by definition we damaged the relationship with that community because we saw that as the source of the threats, or at least the seeds that the threats were hiding in,” said James Shea, Jersey City’s director of public safety, who was with the New York City Police Department on Sept. 11.
Those bonds were restored over time, then frayed after revelations in 2011 that the New York Police Department spied on Muslims in northern New Jersey without telling local authorities. The city’s current outreach reflects an attempt to restore trust, as well as to address the recruitment efforts by extremist groups like Islamic State in the Middle East and Al-Shabab in Somalia.
Immigrants often are reluctant to participate in government- or community-sponsored programs, making it crucial to engage their sons and daughters, Fulop said.
Shea added, “Absent the outreach at different levels, you could have the younger generations feeling alienated.”
Ahmed Shedeed, head of Jersey City’s Islamic Center, points to the lesson of Mohamed Alessa, one of two area kids arrested in 2010 and now in federal prison for seeking to join al-Shabab. He says the warning signs were there but weren’t acted on.
In Columbus, with the nation’s second-largest Somali community, efforts are aimed at the kind of radicalization alleged in a recent terrorism indictment.
Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, who grew up in central Ohio after arriving from Somalia as a child in 1999, has pleaded not guilty to plotting to kill Americans at a military base after receiving terrorism training in Syria.
A committee called the Law Enforcement Somali Advisory Group meets about every three months and brings together local police and federal law enforcement agencies with Somali community leaders.
The group was formed in 2008 after Al-Shabab was designated a foreign terrorist organization. It is a partnership among the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. attorney’s office.
At Ibnu Taymiyah mosque in Columbus, a youth committee helps plan programming for congregants ages 13 to 23, aiming to keep them busy with language classes, basketball leagues, field trips and other activities.
The key is education, said Abshir Haji, 25, an Ohio University senior and adviser to the mosque’s youth committee.
“Everyone has Internet access in their house. Everybody can get on YouTube and watch whatever. We cannot control that,” Haji said. “But what we can control is teaching them or giving them the right tools for them to distinguish what is correct and what is not correct.”
In Maine, a haven for thousands of Somali immigrants, Portland police have hired Somali teens as summer cadets and worked with them through a leadership and esteem program, said acting City Manager Michael Sauschuck.
Such community policing, he said, is “is important for fighting day-to-day crime. It’s important for general, neighborhood problem-solving. And it’s important for dealing with terrorism.”
Most Somali elders, he said, have his cellphone number.
Not far away in Lewiston, where the population of 37,000 includes 3,000 to 4,000 Somalis, police are working to recruit their first Somali officers from the ranks of newly assimilated young people, Chief Michael Bussiere said.
Measuring the success of programs can be difficult. But Haji, of the Columbus mosque, points out that the large house of worship has never had a case of an extremist recruited into terror.
“Something must be working,” he said.
Erroll Southers, co-author of a recent study of terror recruiting within the Twin Cities’ Somali population, says it’s difficult to prove whether someone would have become an extremist without an outreach effort. But he points to a popular soccer program that Somali youth indicated was an alternative to hanging out at malls, which have been identified as potential recruiting places.
“That kind of program, although we can’t measure what’s not happening, is somewhat successful because it is attractive and the young people understand it is an alternative,” said Southers, of the University of Southern California’s Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events.
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