When you hear the phrase “Tiananmen Square,” a single image comes to mind: the gutsy loner with two shopping bags in his hands, facing off a row of menacing Chinese tanks.
He knew full well that in doing so he risked life and limb, but he stood his ground nonetheless.
Meet one of the 21st century’s gutsy loners: Abdirizak Bihi.
Most people hear “fighting terrorism” and mental imagery of a soldier rightfully surfaces. Bihi may not be suiting up in full battle rattle every day, but he puts his life on the line nonetheless, serving as Director of the Somali Advocacy Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Abdirizak Bihi speaks to a group in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo courtesy of author.
While the debate rages on as to boots (or no boots) on the ground in the Middle East to combat the burgeoning Islamic State threat, Bihi—an immigrant from Somali and a first-hand witness to the horrors that terrorists propagate each day—works tirelessly to end the radicalization of young Somali teens in our own midst.
His boots are firmly on the ground.
Before coming to the U.S., many like Bihi left for neighboring Kenya to what would be known as one of the largest refugee camps in the world.
“It was the worst conditions on earth,” Bihi said. “Rape was common, killings were common; there was no food. No hope. No life.”
Once here, he quickly recognized a void in the masses of Somali that were arriving, and particularly in Minnesota—where he relocated in 1996.
“Often the only people from the international community to show up in the camps claiming to want to help the people were the Wahhabi,” Bihi said. “That’s where it started. They would say, ‘if you need protection, food, education, you have to join us. We’ll make you a real Muslim.’”
The Wahhabi, as many might recall, was the faction to which Osama bin Laden belonged.
A Somali Al-Shebab fighter stands on February 13, 2012 in Elasha Biyaha, in the Afgoei Corridor, after a demonstration to support the merger of Al-shebab and the Al-Qaeda network. Shebab insurgents staged rallies across Somalia on February 13 to celebrate their group's recognition by Osama bin Laden's successor as a member of the Islamist Al-Qaeda network. Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri announced in a video message posted on jihadist forums on February 9, 2012 that Shebab fighters had joined ranks with the Islamist network. Credit: AFP/Getty Images
Soon, the Wahhabi followed the Somali refugees to the U.S. They understood the opportunity that they could harvest by taking advantage of our freedom of religion, and wholly recognized the lack of resources to engage the Somali community. According to Bihi, this was the perfect mix.
“The radicals understood the density of people in the Somali neighborhoods; they understood the lack of activities and safe outlets for the young people, and they recognized and took advantage of the fact that the mother whose son or daughter ends up in the back of a police car will be shunned as ‘unfit,’” Bihi noted. “The terrorists set up programs to ‘save’ the kids. They’d invite the youth to the mosques were they’d be ‘trained’ spiritually.”
Naturally, this sort of activity appealed to the families, because their children would be in a house of worship, learning the Koran, and staying out of police cars.
Many of these are also situations in which a father or father figure isn’t present, and thus a sheik assigned to care for small groups of these boys in the mosques becomes that missing piece.
“They take them out for lunch, get them iPods, answer their questions about girls,” Bihi said. “They give them Islamic names—ninth, 10th century names—based on the teachings the boys are being taught at the moment. They were being given manhood; they were being rewarded for being ‘men.’"
These boys are told that their families don’t understand this new “system” and that they are to keep it from them.
In this July 16, 2014 file photo Minneapolis police officer Mike Kirchen talks with Mohamed Salat, left, and Abdi Ali at a community center where members of the Somali community gather in Minneapolis. The nationwide effort to stop a new wave of Westerners being recruited by terror groups, this time for Islamic State militant groups in Syria and Iraq, could take some cues from Minnesota. Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday, Sept. 15, 2014 the Justice Department is launching a series of pilot programs to help detect American extremists looking to join terror organizations in countries like Syria and Iraq. (AP Photo/The Star Tribune, Jim Gehrz, File)
In addition, radical groups often present themselves as helpers, assisting in filling out paperwork for legal or financial concerns—and in doing so, further burrowing themselves into the community.
It goes without saying that Bihi is not a favorite in the eyes of radical Islam, and he’s been in their crosshairs for some time. Despite this, he is having an impact—even saving a young man sent to harm him personally.
Today, that young man is Bihi’s best volunteer.
A perhaps lesser known threat to Bihi’s work is the Council on American-Islamic Relations. While CAIR publicly condemns radical Islam, their money has spoken volumes to the contrary—funding the terrorist organization Hamas. And they've been quite vocal in trying to silence Bihi.
“They hire Somali people and put them on television to attack me,” said Bihi, who says they’ve claimed he is “anti-Muslim” or “anti-Somali.”
Bihi, a practicing Muslim himself, thought about that for a moment and told me, “Well, it’s not Christian terrorism!”
Bihi stressed the need to change the tendency towards political correctness in this country—noting also that it’s the peaceful Muslim population of the world that needs to stop being silent. He's adamant about preventing blanket profiling, but equally as steadfast in his desire to have an open, honest converation about the problem.
He has stood the line where other Muslims have been unable or unwilling to do so. He’s worked with the FBI and local law enforcement to further educate them on the threat at hand, while CAIR condemns Bihi and others like him.
Photo Credit: CAIR
These aren’t just idle words; they’ve resulted in actual threats.
“The day that CAIR released a statement about me to the Pioneer Press, al-Shabaab threatened my life,” said Bihi, who stresses the fact that “good Muslims are routinely left out to dry” for speaking out against terror.
According to CAIR, Bihi and other concerned Somalis aren’t being truthful about the young men who have gone missing from the community.
Bihi is certainly qualified to speak to the subejct–his own nephew was radicalized and later killed in Somalia in 2009.
Ironically enough, though it’s CAIR that has the funding (and White House attention) while Bihi works with pennies, CAIR fights him.
“I have a fraction of the resources that CAIR has, and yet CAIR is fighting me!” Bihi said.
In this Sept. 5, 2014 file photo, President Barack Obama speaks at Celtic Manor, Newport, Wales. As the president plans a speech on the eve of 9/11 to assess the U.S. stance against the Islamic State militants, U.S. officials say the strategy will largely build on the current air strikes and work with the nascent coalition he began to build in Wales. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
While he’s encouraged by some of the efforts he’s seeing, Bihi stresses that is absolutely critical that the right people on the ground be engaged in these efforts—and pointed to the tireless work he and his community center have carried out for years. He relayed to me that he has met with U.S. Attorney Andy Luger, and collaboration seems possible.
Unfortunately, it’s CAIR—and not Bihi or other anti-terror Muslims—who have a seat at the table at the White House in paving a way forward in the face of Islamic State.
Bihi’s life is one of scrounging money together to fund his community center; of personally going without in order to provide for the needy; of putting his life on the line in order protect others from terror.
He wakes up each day with the knowledge that he’s a target.
He’s crystal clear with his objective, and fear will not silence him: “We know what this country stands for, and we’re going to protect it.”
Wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear a few more like him?
Mary Ramirez is a full time writer, creator of www.afuturefree.com – a political commentary blog, and contributor to The Chris Salcedo Show. She can be reached at: email@example.com; or on Twitter: @AFutureFree
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