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Somali-Americans Arrested In Islamic State Recruiting Plot

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Six Minnesota men were arrested over the weekend for trying to join the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The youngest was 18. The oldest was 21. The men come from a large Somali-American community in Minneapolis. And as NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, the FBI has been tracking them for months.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: As Minnesota's U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger read through the names of the six men at the center of the case, to the local Somali community, the announcement sounded achingly familiar.

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ANDREW LUGER: Their names are Adnan Farah, Guled Omar...

TEMPLE-RASTON: Four of them were arrested in Minnesota yesterday, two others in San Diego, where they gone allegedly to buy fake passports. They allegedly hoped to travel to Europe and then on to Syria. The six are just the latest in a roster of young men from Minneapolis who have been persuaded to travel overseas to join terrorist organizations.

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LUGER: Nothing stopped these defendants from pursuing their goal. They never stopped plotting another way to get to Syria to join ISIL.

TEMPLE-RASTON: When it comes to terrorist recruitment, Minneapolis-St. Paul has a history. More than two dozen young men from the Somali community there joined a branch of al-Qaida in Somalia called al-Shabaab. In fact, one of the men charged in this case, Guled Ali Omar, is the younger brother of a Minneapolis man who joined al-Shabaab in 2007. Now ISIS, also known as ISIL, is taking on that recruitment role. Officials tell NPR that as many as 40 young men in the Twin Cities are either under investigation for planning to go join ISIS, have successfully traveled to Syria to join the group, or have been stopped from doing so - 40. And that's just in the past two years.

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LUGER: To be clear, we have a terror recruiting problem in Minnesota.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Again, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger.

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LUGER: The planning and scheming that takes place among those committed to joining ISIL and to participating in ISIL's violent ideology leads either to fighting for terrorists in Syria or to arrest here in Minnesota.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In this case, investigators got a little help from an insider. The criminal complaint says a young man who had been planning to travel with the group changed his mind and contacted the authorities. He agreed to record conversations about the young men's upcoming plans and provide them to investigators. Luger said the tapes and other evidence suggests that...

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LUGER: They were not confused young men. They were not easily influenced. These are focused men who are intent on joining a terrorist organization by any means possible.

ABDIRIZAK BIHI: When a person is radicalized, it could go anywhere. Today it's ISIS. Yesterday it was al-Shabaab. Tomorrow it could be somewhere else.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Abdirizak Bihi is the director of Somali education at the Social Advocacy Center in Minneapolis. His nephew left Minneapolis to join al-Shabaab six years ago, and he was killed there. Bihi has been helping families in the community.

BIHI: I know a family who contacted me because their son was acting weird. And he wanted to get a passport. I wanted to go and try something. And I immediately put them in contact with the police department in their neighborhood. And the police called the FBI, and the situation was taken care of. There were a couple of cases like that.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Minnesota is home to one of three pilot programs aimed at breaking the recruitment cycle. One young man who had been friends with the six in this latest case is now in a halfway house. He is receiving counseling while he awaits sentencing. He's already pleaded guilty to providing material support to a terrorist organization. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.