A Knock on the Door

Will FBI contacts keep fearful Somalis away from the ballot box?

Sitting at a table in the local Starbucks, Omar Jamal points to a pair of recently installed security cameras. Other Somali patrons, the director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center says, believe that these mostly harmless devices are actually being used for FBI surveillance here in the Cedar- Riverside neighborhood. Overreaction, maybe, says Jamal, but the fear is real and getting worse. When a visiting reporter steps outside to take a few photos, the men crowded around the patio tables mutter unhappily. The only intelligible English word is "FBI."

It's no secret that the FBI started keeping close tabs on Minnesota's Somali community after 9/11. In the months after the attack, federal authorities shut down a network of money-transfer businesses owned by two Somali-born Minnesotans. (Months later, investigators concluded that the operations were not supplying funds to al Qaeda and the businesses reopened.) And last winter, a federal grand jury in Minneapolis charged Mohammed A. Warsame, a Canadian citizen of Somali descent, with having aided al Qaeda after training in Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden.

These high-profile cases, it now seems, have turned into an ongoing monitoring of Minnesota's Somali community. The FBI has recently ratcheted up the number of impromptu interviews it is conducting with Somalis, often knocking on doors at night in order, they say, to sniff out any plans for a pre-election attack similar to the terrorist bombing in Madrid last winter. The question now is whether Somali anxiety over such contacts will prevent some 5,000 eligible first-time voters from turning out to vote on November 2.

Has the FBI bugged the pumpkin spice latte? Visits by federal authorities have ratcheted up the anxiety level at Somali hangouts
John Letzing
Has the FBI bugged the pumpkin spice latte? Visits by federal authorities have ratcheted up the anxiety level at Somali hangouts

"In order to conduct an investigation, you've got to talk to people," says Special Agent Paul McCabe, a spokesman for the FBI's Minneapolis office. "We will be knocking on doors, especially these last four weeks leading up to the election."

Hassan Mohamud, a local Somali imam and attorney, fears that these contacts may have broader repercussions on his community's newfound political voice. "It's bad timing," says Mohamud. "We're afraid that some people because of this will not get to the voting stations, even if they are registered."

Danda Khalif, a 28-year-old day laborer lingering in the Ummat Muhammad mosque on East Lake Street, will likely be one such no-show. "I don't want trouble," Khalif says. "Maybe one side wins and they're not happy with me. A lot feel this way. That's why a lot of people here don't vote."

Khalif says that he thinks that on the ballot, "people see your name, your address, and would say, why'd you do that? If the government says get out, I don't know where I'd go."

Many of Mohamud's congregants at the Al Faqua mosque in St. Paul, the imam reports, share similar feelings, many rooted in their experiences with Somalia's broken political system back home. While he's pleaded with them to vote, Mohamud, a serene man with a graying beard, can sympathize with their situation. He had his own experience with this sort of fear back in Somalia, when he was 18 and his father voted against the sitting government.

"Someone came to my house and told my father that the government will find out who you voted for, and then take action against you," he recalls. "My father didn't sleep for a week."

While national reporting has observed the growth of Republican suburbs in the last few Minnesota election cycles, the swelling of Somali voter rolls could be a boost for Democrats. Many Somalis say that while they consider themselves more conservative on social issues like gay marriage, the current administration's treatment of their civil liberties has turned them off.

"If they [Somalis] can get to the polls, they could have an effect," said Vinodh Kutty, a project coordinator at Hennepin County's multicultural services program.

The question, then, is, Will Somali voters show up? "We intend to make some of them turn out, even if we have to drag them out," says Osman Sahardeed, executive director of the Somali American Democratic Association, which is associated with the DFL.

Special Agent McCabe, for his part, maintains that "there's no concern" that the recent increase in FBI interviews will discourage Somalis from voting. And in the case of Ali Isse, he may be right. Isse, a 39- year-old courier, says two FBI agents appeared at his door in Shoreview one night earlier this month. He was at work at the time, and a babysitter was home with three of his five children. Isse reports that the babysitter called him in a panic, and after he dialed the number the men had left her, he told the agent on the other end of the line, "I don't like that you visited my home, don't scare my family and my little kids."

Isse says that while he was disturbed, he wasn't surprised. "They did the same thing to my friend Abdullah," he says.

Isse, a naturalized citizen who has been in this country since 1997, claims he won't be deterred. "I'm not going to stop voting because of someone treating me wrong," he says.

Omar Jamal, of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, may not be the most comforting example for his edgy peers. After quitting his job as a bacteriologist after 9/11, Jamal became an established and outspoken critic of the FBI's treatment of the community. Last year, after someone apparently took a closer look at his immigration file, Jamal was arrested and charged with committing fraud on an application for asylum filled out when he arrived in the US in 1998. Still enmeshed in court proceedings, Jamal should know by this spring whether he will be deported. He says he feels "it's obvious" he is being singled out for his advocacy work.

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