Community members say they are being frequently targeted by the FBI because of their ethnicity and religion.
MINNEAPOLIS — Imagine waking up one morning and going to answer the door in your underwear to find two strange men who want to know if anyone has ever tried recruiting you to join Daesh.
An unannounced visit from the FBI might sound absurd, but for one young Somali-American man it was very real.
"I open [the door] and see two strange white men. They're not wearing suits. They're not wearing no uniform; they just have random jeans and a shirt on," says W, the Somali American who agreed to speak to me on condition of anonymity. "And I'm like, who are you guys? What do you guys want?"
The two men flashed their FBI badges at W before asking his name. Matt, a tall thin man, and his partner Dixon, shorter and stockier, then asked if they could enter W’s Minneapolis apartment.
He says he let them in, mostly out of fear, but told them they had to take their shoes off first. The agents settled in on his sofa. And right off the bat, they asked W if he knew "anything about what's happening ... about ISIS [Daesh] and all that," and if anyone "tried to recruit you."
W's experience as a target of an impromptu but voluntary FBI interview about terrorism is indicative of a wider issue all too common to Muslim immigrant communities in post-9/11 America. His account exemplifies the paranoia, isolation and stress that people are feeling as the FBI seeks out new informants. There are at least 15,000 FBI informants active in the United States, sometimes chosen from groups of people who are relatively new to America and might not be aware of their constitutional rights.
"I was scared, like, I was really scared."
It's a cold day in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It's actually early March, which means snow has been falling pretty heavily all day long. W trudges through the parking lot where I'm waiting in my insufficiently heated car.
We walk over to a coffee shop in the city's Cedar-Riverside neighbourhood.
W is quiet and soft-spoken but he makes conversation with acquaintances inside the shop as we walk to a corner table next to the front window. There's a basketball game on the television right next to us, which has captured the attention of one of his friends sitting across the room, and W wants to watch it with him as soon as the interview is over.
This is the first time he's willing to share his story.
It has been two years since W was abruptly awoken by the agents outside his door.
At the time of the FBI visit in March 2016, a group of young men from the community had already pled guilty to conspiring and attempting to provide material support to Daesh. At least three more were awaiting trial, one in which they would later be convicted for the same charges.
The agents asked W if he knew them; by this point in time the government had already finished building their case against the men who were arrested in April 2015.
As to whether he had ever been recruited to Daesh, he responded, "I said, 'no. I don't know anybody, mess with anybody like that. I tell them the definition of Islam and what I believe, and I don't believe in any of that bull stuff'.”
Playing up the good cop vibe, the agents claimed to know about his reputation as a "good guy" in the community, W says, but wanted to know if he knew the men facing charges.
He did happen to know all of them, he says, and said as much to the FBI.
He knew two brothers caught up in the case, Mohamed and Adnan Farah, since seventh grade. Guled Omar, one of the men who went to trial and was convicted, was once his teacher at the dugsi, or Islamic school that he attended, located at a mosque in south Minneapolis.
The conversation didn't last too long. W reluctantly gave them his phone number "just so he can leave early."
They left him with a business card, letting him know he could reach out to them. A few days later, Matt followed up with phone calls and texts, asking W if he would have time to grab "coffee or lunch," in order to have "a conversation." "You tell me when," Matt texted without elaborating on what they wanted to talk about.
A screenshot of the text messages sent by the FBI to the anonymous source:
"From the way the conversation was going, it looked [like] they wanted me to be a snitch, or something," W says.
The FBI tried calling W two days after the impromptu visit and then followed up with text messages, copies of which were provided to the author. Wanting to be left alone, W said that he was unavailable to meet and then ignored a subsequent overture to meet for coffee. After that text went unanswered, the bureau finally left him alone.
Michael Kulstad, a spokesman for the FBI, said he couldn’t comment when asked if it is a normal practice for the FBI to visit people in their homes and ask if they have been the target of extremist recruiting. He did note that the FBI reaches out to members of the community all the time through their outreach offices, and that “the very fact that we’re talking to members of the community isn’t anything out of the ordinary.”
The lingering suspicion
Minnesota might be flyover country to some, but over the years some of the men from its Somali diaspora, which is estimated to include about 25,000 people, have drawn the attention of the US Department of Justice (DoJ). They began travelling to Somalia in 2007 to engage in what some of them saw as a legitimate nationalist resistance against Ethiopia's invasion of their homeland.
From 2009 to 2012, a number of Somalis from Minnesota, not the ones who travelled to fight, have been charged with material support for the armed group Al Shabab, and a handful faced prosecution in the United States. In one such case, two women from Minnesota were convicted for raising money for Al Shabab in 2011; in 2012 another man was found guilty of providing material support to Al Shabab.
More recently, in the age of Daesh recruitment, the US government has been deploying Countering Violent Extremism initiatives which use security agencies, families and friends, and community leaders to identify and intervene with people at risk of “radicalising” violence. Critics have pointed out that these programmes place quite a lot of focus on “Islamic radicalism” while failing to address other violent ideologies, such as white supremacy.
What this means, then, for the Somali community, is a feeling that they are perpetually being watched — both by the media and the state.
One Muslim civil rights activist knows what that feels like. In July 2016, the FBI came to the door of Burhan Mohumed’s Minneapolis apartment demanding to enter without a warrant — an encounter he recorded. About six months later, they allegedly called him on his cellphone and then radio silence.
But on February 27, 2018, Google notified Mohumed via email that the FBI from the District of Minnesota had served them with a grand jury subpoena for his Google account subscriber information.
Known in the community as a staunch critic of the United States' foreign policy and how the so-called war on terror affects Muslim communities, Mohumed doesn't hold much back. "If I have a situation, I'm going to be public with this shit," he says.
Mohumed, 27, came to the United States from Somalia with his family as a young child and later became a US citizen. As a high school student, Mohumed was employed as a youth worker at the Brian Coyle Community Center where, years later, he would host a town hall denouncing the government's CVE programme as racist alongside his cohorts in the Young Muslim Collective, a group which speaks out on Muslim civil liberties.
Burhan isn't sure, but he suspects the FBI wants him to become a confidential informant for the Bureau. "They think I know something, like I'm this omnipresent, omnipotent guy who knows everything that goes down in the Muslim community," he says.
The original notification from Google says the company received and responded to a legal process issued by the FBI and that up until then, they were prohibited from notifying him about it.
Ellen Longfellow, Mohumed’s attorney with the Council on American Islamic Relations’ Minnesota chapter, tells TRT World that when she called the US Attorney’s Office in the District of Minnesota on March 5, 2018, they confirmed to her that the case involving the subpoena was still under investigation. However, Tasha Zerna, a spokesperson with the Department of Justice, couldn’t confirm if the grand jury investigation referenced in the subpoena was still open, or even existed. In an email to TRT World, she stated that she “will decline to comment as it is the Department’s policy to neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.”
Longfellow further explains to TRT World that Google must wait a year after being issued a subpoena by the FBI before they can notify their customers of such legal processes they comply with. "The US attorney's office could have requested additional time but chose not to, apparently," she says.
After confirming the email was electronically signed by google.com, Mohumed reached out to Google requesting more details regarding what the government had requested. Google responded saying, in accordance with applicable law, the company had produced "basic subscriber information." This included his internet protocol login data, means of payment for Google services, and "email header information."
Attached in their reply was a copy of the subpoena to appear before a grand jury issued by the the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota.
Michael German is a fellow with the Liberty and National Security Project at Brennan Center for Justice, and a former FBI agent who infiltrated white supremacist groups for the Bureau.
He reviewed the order provided by Google and confirms that it is a grand jury subpoena for subscriber information, which is "the lowest level of investigation, but they are a first step in predicated investigations as well."
German explains that a prosecutor would need a judicial warrant to obtain the contents of Mohumed’s emails, and cannot simply do so with a grand jury subpoena. He also notes that a request for subscriber information cannot include someone's email contacts, but says it is unclear if Google handed over more than they needed to.
The Stored Communications Act stipulates that agents need a probable cause judicial warrant to get "emails on the fly" or "stored at an ISP for the first 180 days after they are sent,” but, German adds, "there is some question whether after 180 days the FBI may need only a subpoena or what is called a '2703(d) order which requires relevance rather than probable cause." In 2010, the Sixth Circuit Court ruled all emails need a warrant regardless of how long they are stored, but it is unclear whether the FBI is honouring this ruling outside the eastern and western districts of Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.
Mohumed is choosing to be vocal about what happened to him because he knows it happens to other people in his community. He says in his time as a youth worker at the Brian Coyle Center, a handful of young men have come to him saying that they were also being pursued by FBI agents who have tried to coax them into seemingly innocuous meetings, such as getting coffee. "The only thing I'm really worried about is these types of transgressions, you know, continuing ... other people are being violated in the way that I'm being violated."
That attitude is why W first confided his story in Mohumed. "Burhan is like that person in the neighborhood who is always there for you,” W says. “He's always there to help you reach your goal ... you could ask literally the whole [community], anybody my age will give you the same answer, he's a big brother."
Braving the odds
Federal grand juries are investigatory bodies that decide whether to issue federal charges or indictments.
According to Wadie Said, a professor of law at the University of South Carolina, prosecutors have a great deal of control over the process but the target a grand jury is investigating has no right to present her or his defence in front of them; often they are not even aware of the investigation. More importantly, even if a grand jury declines to issue charges, they can be "indefinitely renewed," meaning that the FBI can "kind of keep someone's file permanently open," Said says.
When it comes to the FBI interviewing people, agents don't have to inform a person of their legal rights unless that person is the target of an arrest — in the US, suspects in police custody have the right to silence.
"The thing that's nuts," Said says, "is that all this kind of investigatory power that police and law enforcement have stems from asking people for consent to search or to talk freely, and kind of getting them in a bind. [Authorities] don't have to to have any suspicion — they don't have to tell you [that] you have a right to say no, as a general matter."
The FBI’s reach into the Minnesota’s Somali community adds yet another layer to some of the everyday racism W has experienced in his life. "It is hard to live in America and be a black Muslim," he says. "It's hard to build a home where someone else doesn't want you."
Then, his demeanor shifts slightly. "It's all good ... If you know me, I'm just a happy guy in the neighbourhood. I’m smiling most of the time."
NOTE: W's name has been withheld at his request.