Pilot program to fight ISIS, Al Shabaab recruiting

Inside a south Minneapolis gymnasium, Somali teenagers play a game they love, under the watchful eye of a man they call Coach Ahmed.

In the last decade, he's produced a championship team that for two years went undefeated, but Ahmed doesn't get paid, and has struggled to find a place for his kids to even practice.

"These kids, nobody helps them. We have Minnesota Youth Soccer Association, we have Minneapolis Parks and Recreation, we have school board," he said. And none of them reached out to the Somali community.

Ahmed now has a waiting list of 70 kids he must turn away -- impressionable teenagers who, outside these walls, may well become prospects, for gangs, or worse, the terror recruiters.

"How are you going to stop ISIS or Al Shabaab when you don't give an opportunity?" he questioned.

United States attorney Andy Luger believes mentors like Ahmed are the key to what he's calling a Community Resiliency Program which he'll unveil at a White House summit on Wednesday -- a justice department pilot program to combat the recruiting of young men, and women, for terror, by getting at root causes here at home, like unemployment and a lack of opportunity. Other programs are being started in Los Angeles and Boston, but Minnesota is the program everyone will be watching.

Beginning in 2007, as many as 40 people have left Minnesota, travelling to Somalia to fight for Al Shabaab, and more recently, to Syria, to fight and die for ISIS.

"There is a very sophisticated and persuasive message coming from overseas, that you have a better life, a more meaningful life, fighting overseas for terrorists," Luger said.

Luger wants to combat that message in several ways.

-Youth and after school programs

-Job fairs and job training programs

-Eliminate ethnic profiling at the airport.

-See more Somalis in law enforcement

-Increase engagement between religious leaders and youth.

"What I've heard repeatedly from relatives of young men who have traveled to Syria, is more connection between youth and religious leaders, more connection to the imams," Luger said.

"The Somali imams whom I've met are dead set against this ideology and what's happening in their community. They care more about this than anyone, because it's robbing young, vibrant lives from the community."

At the end of the day, Luger is the chief federal prosecutor in Minnesota. He says there will be more indictments of recruiters and travelers for ISIS. He just doesn't want that to be an indictment of the broader community. There are also concerns raised by the Council on American and Islamic Relations that the pilot program is really just a backdoor way to spy on the Somali community, and to gather intelligence. Luger promises that won't happen.

"This was built by the community with me, not against them," he said.

Meanwhile, Ahmed knows that fear is out there. He has heard it before. However, he also believes soccer, or any kind of constructive passion can be a method of inoculation against extremism.

"I'll tell you what. People doing this recruiting think they're smart. They're not coming after kids in a program. If that happens, they're done. They know this kid will talk," Ahmed said.

Ahmed is now working on a grant for $70,000 to expand his soccer program so no kid is left on a waiting list. Already, there are whispers in the community about which programs will get money, and who will be left out. In the end though, it's not about programs, it's about people like Ahmed. Someone who will listen. Someone they can trust.

"I will leave a legacy no one else leaves in the community," he said.

In his heart, Ahmed would secretly love to create a soccer star. Luger hopes he'll create hundreds of good citizens instead.

Up Next:

  • Popular

  • Recent

Stories you may be interested in – includes advertiser stories