Things to know about Somalis in Minnesota

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – The stabbings at a Minnesota mall, attributed to a young Somali man, are being treated by federal investigators as a potential act of terrorism after the Islamic State claimed the suspect had heeded its calls for attacks in countries that are part of a U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition.

While a motive for Saturday night’s attack isn’t clear and it isn’t clear whether the attacker was radicalized, authorities in Minnesota have struggled for years to stem recruiting of young Somali men by the Islamic State and east Africa-based militant group al-Shabab. Here are things to know about Somalis in Minnesota:

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LARGEST POPULATION IN U.S.

Minnesota has the nation’s largest Somali community. Many who fled the long civil war in their east African country were drawn to the state’s welcoming social programs.

Census numbers put the state’s Somali population at about 40,000, but community activists have said it’s higher. The largest share of that group has settled in the Minneapolis area, including one neighborhood near the University of Minnesota campus that’s been dubbed “Little Mogadishu” in reference to Somalia’s capital. But significant numbers have also settled in St. Cloud, Willmar and other smaller cities.

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TERROR RECRUITING

In the past decade, Minnesota has struggled with terrorist groups luring some of its young Somali men overseas. The problem first surfaced in 2007, when more than 20 young men went to Somalia, where Ethiopian troops propping up a weak U.N.-backed government were seen by many as foreign invaders. Al-Shabab, classified as a terror group by the U.S. government, wooed young Americans with jihadist videos that appealed to patriotic and religious ideals.

In more recent years, the Islamic State has also found recruits in Minnesota, with authorities saying roughly a dozen have left to join militants in Syria. Nine Minnesota men face sentencing this fall on terror charges for plotting to join the Islamic State group.

If Saturday’s stabbings are ultimately deemed a terrorist act, it would be the first carried out by a Somali on U.S. soil, said Karen Greenburg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law.

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CONCERNS, EFFORTS TO STOP RECRUITING

Federal officials have said one of their biggest fears was that a radicalized American who left the country to join the Islamic State or al-Shabab might return home to carry out attacks on U.S. soil. That was before the Islamic State began urging “lone wolf” attacks in countries that are part of a U.S.-led coalition against their group.

Stopping recruiting has been a high priority, with law enforcement investing countless hours in community outreach and the state participating in a federal project designed to combat radical messages.

It was not immediately clear if the extremist group had planned Saturday’s attack or knew about it beforehand. In the past, IS has claimed attacks that are not believed to have been planned by its central leadership.

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COMMUNITY ACTIVISM

Leaders in the state’s Somali and Muslim communities have been quick to condemn terror attacks wherever they occur and, though a motive wasn’t known, did so after Saturday’s mall stabbings. They have said such attacks don’t represent the larger Somali community and that they fear a backlash against Somalis in the state.

(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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