Congressional candidates across the country are debating how to stop the Islamic State abroad, but Minnesota’s Senate race has the candidates trading shots over how to stop terrorist recruitment much closer to home, after dozens of young Minnesota men are believed to have gone to train overseas as jihadist warriors.
Mike McFadden, the Republican, has accused Democratic incumbent Sen. Al Franken of failing to stop Minnesota from becoming a recruiting ground for extremists, and this week he released his own plan to combat propaganda and recruiting campaigns by the Islamic State, Somalia-based Al Shabab and other Islamist organizations aimed at Minnesota immigrant young people.
Mr. Franken, who is finishing his first term, counters that he’s been on top of the issue for years.
“In 2009, we knew that Shabab in Somalia was beginning to recruit from our communities. The first days I was in office I went to the FBI and got a briefing,” he said during a debate last week, replying to Mr. McFadden’s charges. “I have worked with law enforcement. I pressed the secretary of Homeland Security. I pressed the director of the FBI in [Senate Judiciary Committee] hearings on this recruitment.”
It is estimated that anywhere between 20 and 40 Minnesotans recruited from the state’s sizable Somalian emigre population have left the U.S. and joined the Al Shabab terror network since 2008. Another 10 or 12 have left the U.S. to join the Islamic State in Syria and now Iraq, Mr. Franken and federal officials have estimated.
On Wednesday, the FBI asked Americans for help in identifying a man with a North American accent seen a recent Islamic State propaganda video.
Mr. McFadden argues that Mr. Franken — and the Obama administration as a whole — have not done enough to stop the trend.
“Minnesota has been a hotbed for terrorism recruitment for more than five years, yet once again Senator Franken continues to be AWOL on this crisis, failing to be the leader Minnesotans need him to be. Minnesota needs a leader,” he said in a statement announcing his proposal.
He called for improving education and employment opportunities for young people likely to be recruited; increased community mentorship and after-school programs; spending more money for law enforcement agencies; and revoking passports for those who leave the U.S. to fight abroad.
The Minnesota contest is just one example of how the thorny issue of battling Islamist extremists has found its way into midterm campaigns.
In Iowa, Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat running for the Senate against Republican Joni Ernst, raised eyebrows this week when he claimed he recently voted to authorize strikes against the Islamic State in Syria. But the bill he voted for actually authorized arming and training moderate Syrian rebel forces, and specifically said it wasn’t authorizing U.S. strikes in Syria.
In New Hampshire, Colorado, Michigan and elsewhere, Republican candidates have taken aim at their Democratic opponents for purportedly not taking the Islamic State threat to the U.S. homeland seriously enough. In Arkansas, Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, running to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, recently claimed that Islamist forces may be collaborating with Mexican drug cartels to enter the U.S. via the southern border.
But the debate in Minnesota remains unique given that state’s emotional battle to keep its young people from traveling abroad and fighting against American interests.
Some specialists say the federal government has taken substantial steps to roll back terrorist recruiting efforts, but stress that more must be done.
“It’s not true to say there’s no policy and no programs. There are at federal, state, and local levels. However, they need to be strengthened and further developed,” said Dr. Stevan Weine, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies terrorist recruiting in the U.S.
“ISIS and other terrorist organizations have flooded the Internet and social media with a sophisticated propaganda campaign. Up until now, the U.S. government and state and local law enforcement and communities have not done nearly enough to contest and counter that barrage of messaging. Young people are much more likely to encounter messages espousing extreme and violence than they are to encounter moderation,” he added.