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How Minnesota Muslims are countering Islamist propaganda

As Minnesota leads the nation in the number of people who have left, or tried to leave, the country to fight with terrorists aligned with the Islamic State, local Muslim – and non-Muslim – communities took steps to fight back against extremism.

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Ayan Abdurahman (r.) waits for a ride after attending a hearing for her son Zacharia Abdurahman, one of seven defendants charged with conspiring to join ISIL Thursday Sept. 17 in Minneapolis, Minn. Mr. Adbdurahman pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist group, specifically the Islamic State group, in federal court on Thursday. Authorities say he was part of a group of friends in Minnesota's Somali community who met secretly to plan different ways to travel to Syria.

Jerry Holt/Star Tribune/AP

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Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame, 20, is one of ten Minnesota men charged with conspiring to help the Islamic State. Mr. Warsame was arrested Wednesday night and on Thursday was ordered held pending a detention hearing next week.

Court documents allege Warsame tried to help other members of Minnesota’s Somali community travel to Syria to fight for the Islamic State. Warsame planned to enter Syria by way of Mexico.

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Warsame, the expected leader of the group, is charged eight months after his friends. Of the nine men charged with conspiring to help the Islamic State terrorist group, three have pleaded guilty, five are already scheduled to stand trial in May, and authorities confirm the ninth is in Syria.

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“The men have been described as friends in Minnesota’s Somali community who recruited and inspired each other to join the Islamic State,” the Associated Press reports. “Some of them communicated with Islamic State members overseas, some took steps to get fake passports, and some played paintball to prepare for combat.”

And while the small town of Eagan, Minn., might be shocked by the recent allegations, Minnesota leads the nation in the number of people who have left, or tried to leave, the country to fight with terrorists aligned with the Islamic State.

In a September report released by the US House Committee on Homeland Security, Minnesota recruits make up 26 percent of the 58 cases reviewed by the task force. California and New York hold second and third place for the most recruits, but even their percentages combined don’t equal that of Minnesota.

The heaviest concentration of Somalis in the United States can be found in Minnesota, with an estimated population of 25,000.

“This report is alarming and it’s really very worrisome,” Sadik Warfa, deputy director of the Global Somali Diaspora in Minneapolis, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “I worry about the stigma and the prospect of our community being marginalized. But in the end, it’s up to us as Somali-Americans to really change our image.”

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But even in the state with the most Islamic State sympathizers, Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Minnesota have taken peaceful action to fight back against extremism.

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Mohamed Ahmed, once a typical middle-aged father and gas station manager, is one of many Muslim Minneapolians to do whatever he can to fight extremism in his state. Frustrated by the Islamic State’s stealthy social media campaigns, Mr. Ahmed decided to make a social media campaign of his own.

Ahmed has used his own money to produce and develop his website, AverageMohamed.com. On his site, Ahmed creates cartoons and videos so average people can share “logical talking points countering falsehood propagated by extremists.”

Ahmed says it will take many "Average Mohameds" to beat the Islamic State. “It takes an idea to destroy an idea,” Ahmed told USA Today. “The value of peace is worth it. We’ll take all risks to defend democratic values.”

And Minnesota businesses unrelated to the Muslim community, such as the Mall of America, have dedicated efforts and financial resources towards “mentoring or leadership programs designed to make Somali young people less vulnerable to the terrorist message,” reports the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Private companies had already raised $390,000 in September. And part of the contribution will go to Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities so more care and attention is focused on the local Somali youth.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.