By Amy Forliti , AP
MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota –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.”