By Penny Starr
(CNSNews.com) – The sheriff of Hennepin County, Minn., told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security on Wednesday about the threat of Somali gangs in his jurisdiction.
“I have been asked to testify today about the specific emergence of Somali gang-related issues we are having in my county,” Rich Stanek said in his prepared testimony.
Stanek represented the National Sheriffs’ Association at the hearing on “America’s Evolving Gang Threat.” He also serves on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s inter-agency Threat Assessment and Coordination Group and is president of the Major County Sheriffs’ Association.
Stanek said Minnesota is a “designated U.S. Refugee Resettlement Area,” with a Somali population ranging from 80,000 to 125,000 in the state. As a result, Stanek said, while the African population in the U.S. as a whole is about four percent, 18 percent of the Minnesota population is African because of the large Somali presence.
Stanek said he wanted to “state for the record” that most Somalis are “law-abiding citizens” who contribute to the community, but those who have joined gangs are committing crimes across the state.
“Somali gangs are unique in that they are not necessarily based on the narcotics trade as are other traditional gangs,” Stanek said, adding that “turf” is also not a motivating factor in Somali gang criminal activities.
“Gang members will often congregate in certain areas, but commit their criminal acts elsewhere,” Stanek said. “Criminal acts are often done in a wide geographic area that stretches outside of the Twin Cities seven county metro area.
“Their mobility has made them difficult to track,” Stanek said.
Stanek listed five “typical crimes” committed by Somali gang members, including credit card fraud, cell phone and gun store burglaries, and witness intimidation. The fifth type of criminal activity is tied to international terrorism, Stanek said.
“In 2007, the local Somali community started to report that some of the youth in the area had essentially disappeared without warning,” Stanek said. “It was later learned that 20 young men had left Minneapolis to travel to Somalia to receive training and fight as members of al- Shabaab.
“One individual had moved to Minneapolis as a teenager in 1993,” Stanek said. Following a shoplifting arrest, he fell into the violent street gang called the ‘Somali Hot Boyz.’ After a short period of time, he emerged as a recruiter for al-Shabaab, which eventually led him to leave Minneapolis for the Horn of Africa in 2008.
“Later, it was learned this individual was killed in fighting between al-Shabaab and Somali government forces,” Stanek said.
“We are clearly faced with a challenge that requires an innovative approach including new investigative tools and focused resources,” Stanek said.
According to the Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Refugee and Resettlement, refugee programs and resettlement sites exist in 49 states and the District of Columbia and are operated through partnerships between the federal government and faith-based and other non-governmental refugee support organizations in those states and the District.
A spokesperson for the office told CNSNews.com that the United States admits on average about 70,000 refugees a year, with each required to be designated as individuals who face danger in their homeland. Every refugee has to be cleared by the Department of Homeland Security before being allowed to resettle in the United States, the spokesperson said.
A wide range of considerations about where to relocate individuals is considered, including family ties, language and available resources, the spokesperson said. But once they are living in the United States, refugees are free to live anywhere in the country.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), chairman of the subcommittee, opened the hearing with statistics on the gang threat in the United States.
“According to the 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment there are approximately 1.4 million gang members belonging to more than 33,000 gangs in the United States,” Sensenbrenner said. “It has been reported that the number of gang members in the U.S. has increased by 40 percent since 2009.”