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Marco Werman: It’s not hard to understand why young people like Karam want to flee from countries gripped by extremism. More difficult to fathom is why others are lured to countries in turmoil to join the extremists, and actually radical recruiters have been preying on naive Western youth for longer than you might think. Seventeen-year-old honors student Burhan Hassan was convinced he had to leave Minnesota and join the Somali extremist group al-Shabab seven years ago. That decision still does not make sense to his uncle, Somali-American Abdirizak Bihi. He remembers the night his nephew left, it was on the eve of election day, November 2008. Bihi thought Hassan was on the streets of Minneapolis, knocking on doors on behalf of candidate Barack Obama.
Abdirizak Bihi: His mom, my sister, was worried that he didn’t come home as usual that evening and she called me and other family members. Personally, I told her “Hey, he’s 17, don’t worry about him. Maybe he’s out there door-knocking for the election,” as our community was really excited about that election. Early in the morning, with that motherly instinct, she found his passport and other materials were gone.
Werman: Did he leave a note or anything?
Bihi: Nothing. We wish. But nothing. We started making phone calls to east African, Kenyan relatives and the former Somali consulate and we found out he was traveling.. Before we did that, the first thing we did was we went to the law enforcement and told them what was happening.
Werman: Your nephew, what happened to him once he got to Somalia?
Bihi: He was the youngest, to date, that was recruited and brainwashed. He got homesick, he refused to fight or be trained, and he became a liability to them and he was killed by the son of the former al-Shabab leader.
Werman: Do you think he regretted his decision once he got there?
Bihi: Yes, he did. Most young people regret it because they get there, they don’t find the utopian society, they find executions, they find the worst things in their life, something they’ve never been told of.
Werman: Since your nephew died there, more than 27 Somali-Americans have disappeared to fight for al-Shabab in Somalia. Now ISIS is recruiting in the Twin Cities as well. Are you able to explain why this is happening in the Twin Cities?
Bihi: ISIS is recruiting all over the world, and have recruited about 180 Americans. Somali-Americans in Minnesota are the minority in this number. But the one thing I can tell you is that this Somali-American community is the poorest community in Minnesota, and continues to suffer the highest unemployment in the state of Minnesota.
Werman: And you see a connection to the recruitment?
Bihi: Yes. In my community where I live, which is called “Little Mogadishu,” or Little Somalia, has the highest number of young people in the Midwest.
Werman: It sounds like it’s a tightly-knit community.
Bihi: Yes. Let me tell you about the building I live in, those high rises. We used to leave our doors open so that the neighbors could come in and get a banana--bananas are very important to east Africans and Somalis--so, get a banana, a tomato, or whatever you need. So, we depend on each other, we support each other, and that’s how we survive with chronic high unemployment, about 40% in a state where the unemployment rate is 3%.
Werman: Given how tightly-knit things are in the Twin Cities, if there are face to face recruitments going on on the ground, wouldn’t people say “This is dangerous” and tell the authorities?
Bihi: Yes, the communities are talking to each other and they are figuring out who’s doing this, they’re working with the authorities, and we’re strongly against this.
Werman: When was the last time you met a young man or woman in the Twin Cities and thought “Hm, I have to keep an eye on them”?
Bihi: Well, I don’t keep an eye on people, or young people, but we engage them. We challenge young people every now and then. and they are challenged because they cannot find opportunities to find employment or join a positive program, such as an afterschool program. They key here is resources. You have a community that’s really trying very hard to chase the American dream, and at the same time that lacks the tools and the resources to reach that dream.
Werman: Abdirizak Bihi directs the Somali Education Social Advocacy Center in Minneapolis in Minnesota. Thank you very much. Great to meet you.
Bihi: Thank you for having me.