The FBI has begun interviewing immigrant men in the Twin Cities as part of a nationwide probe of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Officers are questioning men between 18 and 33 who have come to this country since January 2000. It's part of a federal effort to interview 5,000 recent immigrants from countries the U.S. suspects of links to terrorism. Minnesota's Somali community, the largest in the nation, includes many young and recent immigrants. It's also the state's largest Muslim population, and could bear the brunt of the investigation here. Somali leaders are deeply worried by the prospect. They see it as one sign of troubling changes in the legal system of their adopted country.
According to the U.S. attorney's office in Minnesota, between 90 and 200 men will be questioned here, most of them in the Twin Cities. The FBI and local police or sheriffs have been going to people's homes and interviewing them there.
Saeed Fahia, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Communities in Minnesota, worries the interviews will frighten many Somalis.
"In Somalia there was a dictatorship for 20 years, and if the police knocked on your door, you were in real trouble. It's not like, 'come here and talk to us voluntarily.' So I'm really sure that people will be worried if they were called by the police or the FBI for an interview," according to Fahia.
Authorities say the interviews are voluntary, and that those questioned are not suspects. But Fahia worries that many Somalis may not understand that. "Many people don't speak English that well and probably they follow the news from other people in the community who tell them what they have understood. Rumors could fly easily in the community. You see images on the TV that you don't understand, I mean, some bombing going on, a war going on or something, and it's really very frightening."
The interviews come at a time when Minnesota's Somali community is already under stress.
Last month in Minneapolis and other U.S. cities, the federal government shut down offices of Al-Barakaat, a Somali wiring service that many immigrants used to send money to relatives back home. The Treasury Department alleges the company was skimming money and funneling it to terrorists.
Somali leaders say they've assured law enforcement authorities that the community is willing to cooperate with the terrorism investigation. They've have urged anyone with information that may be helpful to come forward. But they say investigators should use solid leads, not throw a net over an entire community.
"What we are saying is that if there are bad people out there, they should be looked at, they should be interviewed, they should be caught, they should be brought to justice. What we do not agree [with] is simply to have a net-casting of people, simply because of their religion, simply because of their ethnic background, or simply because of their country of origin, really does not make sense. And that is not the American way," says Osman Sahardeed, assistant executive director of the Somali Community of Minnesota.
Somali leaders worry that the immigrants questioned may not have competent interpreters, and they say people may not realize they have a right to have a lawyer present.
Hassan Mohamud, who works on immigration cases for the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, is also is a leader at the Al Taqua Mosque in St. Paul. "I feel it is my responsibility to let the people know what is coming to them. And let the people know where to seek legal consultation," he says.
U.S. Attorney Thomas Heffelfinger says he respects and understands the community's concerns. He says for that reason he's been holding a series of meetings with leaders of the Somali and Muslim communities.
Heffelfinger says he's simply asking members of the Somali community to keep their promise to cooperate with law enforcement. He says that since they are not suspects, those being interviewed are not being advised of their right to have a lawyer present. However, they are being told they don't have to answer questions.
"We are attempting to approach not only the Somali people, but all people that we will be interviewing with respect, with courtesy, and with recognition that these are voluntary. And we're asking for no greater or lesser cooperation from this group of people than we would ask from any person living in the United States and taking advantage of the freedoms and liberties of this country," according to Heffelfinger.
"Unfortunately we cannot stop our investigation of the terror of the 11th simply because a group of people with information may have have experienced contact with foreign police at some time in their past that is frightening," he adds.
But Somali leaders say the interviews are not the only troubling sign of change. The Legal Aid Society's Mohamud was a lawyer in Somalia and has a degree in Islamic law. He's now completing his U.S. legal degree at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.
He's deeply disturbed by the federal government's secret detention of hundreds of immigrants after Sept. 11. He's likewise concerned about the Bush administration's proposed military tribunals for those suspected of terrorism. He says in Somalia, people had firsthand experience with such trials, under the country's National Security Court.
"It was a military court, and that was like the usual, the normal court, that everyone that the government suspect was going through that trial system. And the penalty would be like the death penalty, the same like what we are hearing in news in this country. Plus all the process is secret," says Mohamud, who adds that when they came to this country, Somalis believed the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights ensured them that couldn't happen here.
Heffelfinger calls fears about military tribunals detention of immigrants "misplaced." He says military tribunals can occur only on the orders of the president, and that Somalis here should have no fear of being taken away and tried in secret.
"That simply will not happen, because under any procedure under which we could take someone into custody, they are entitled to judicial review of the actions of the police and the prosecutors. So it's not possible in this country to be taken into custody and held without a judge overseeing that custody status. That's true both as an accused criminal, as a material witness to a criminal act, and as an accused violator of an immigration regulation," he says.
But Osman Sahardeed of the Somali Community of Minnesota still worries that the country is changing in ways he hasn't seen in his 20 years in the United States. He warns that there's more at stake than what happens over the next few weeks or months to local Somalis.
"This will pass us by. Sooner or later this will be over. What will always stay with us in the U.S. is really the pillars that this country was founded on. What the forefathers of this country have done is really unique around the world. And for that to be just to be trampled in seconds, no matter how big the tragedy , is tragic itself," says Sahardeed.
Heffelfinger says everyone questioned has cooperated.More from MPR