On March 10th, we heard from Matt Palombo, with recordings from Guled Omar. Mennonite Central Committee has been focusing on mass incarceration, and Matt Palombo has been working in Minneapolis with Andrew Wright, a former member of PMC, on mass incarceration and the war on terror. Matt has attended seminary, as well as earning a doctorate in Islamic studies from Johannesburg, where he studied Muslim and Christian relations in Apartheid South Africa. He is currently a philosophy professor at Minneapolis College, where there is a large Muslim Somali refugee population. Many of his students are part of this Somali community.
The scripture reading for the morning was Psalm 27. The psalmist is in a place of fear, surrounded by hate and violence. The reading was chosen by Guled Omar, who relates to this surrounding — serving a 35-year sentence for terrorist-related charges in Ft. Levensworth, Kansas. Guled was taped reading the psalm on a phone call, which was played for us to begin the sermon.
Guled grew up in Minneapolis, and was Matt’s student. And Guled is one of many in his community who is serving time for terror-related charges. Matt gives us some background to explain how this has happened.
In the 1980’s the U.S. weaponized and supported the Somali leader Siad Barre, and in 1998 pulled that support, throwing the country into civil war. Guled’s father lost his leg during the civil war, and his family fled to neighboring refugee communities. Guled was born in 1994 in Dadaab refugee camp, the largest Somali refugee camp in the world.
During the same year in the U.S., the violent crime act was enacted. Guled’s family came to Minneapolis in the U.S. as refugees in 1998. The same year, a joint counter-terrorism task force was created targeting the Somali community. Guled grew up in South Minneapolis, was a leader in his high school and an outspoken critic of injustices such as racism. At Minneapolis College, he was elected President of the Muslim Student Association. Matt was a faculty advisor for this group, and met Guled in the fall of 2013.
In 2002, after 9/11, the U.S. invaded Somalia. The same year the U.S. unleashed counter-terrorism activities against the Somali community in Minneapolis, including deportation, the shutting down of businesses, and incarceration. In 2006, the U.S. declared the Islamic courts in Somalia terrorist organizations, and supported Ethiopia in invading Somalia on the premise of fighting terror. Al Shabaab, part of the Islamic courts, defended their homeland from Ethiopian and U.S. backed invasion. Guled’s older brother was one of the first of a couple dozen young Somali people to return to Somalia to fight against the invasion with Al Shabaab. Shortly after, Al Shabaab was declared a terrorist organization. Guled’s family and all young people who knew or were connected in any way to anyone who’d returned to Somalia to fight were also targeted as terrorists.
In 2009, under President Obama, a program was launched to combat radicalization and violent extremist ideology. Psychologists worked with U.S. counter-terrorism division created profiles of young people thought to be “on a path to radicalization or extremism.” Guled was one of many young people who were victims of this program.
In 2011, Obama launched the Countering Violent Extremism Programs in Los Angeles, Boston, and Minneapolis — the single largest city of counter-terrorist work in all of the U.S. — much of that against the Somali community. In spring 2014, two of Guled’s friends went to Syria to help people who were victims of Bashar Al Assad. They were communicating with Guled and others. In May of 2014, ISIS was declared a terrorist group, and anyone with any connections withe the group was targeted.
That year Guled and a number of his friends, teenagers at the time, talked privately about also going to Syria to help victims of the mass torture and targeting of Bashar Al Assad. They had no plans for fighting or killing, but only a desire to help groups of people suffering under this oppressive regime. That year, the U.S. government hired a friend of Guled as a paid under-cover informant to encourage Guled and his friends to go to Syria. Despite Guled’s stating that he did not want to go, they used a paid informant to encourage him, and who taped private conversation while they played basketball. They leveraged a couple other young people to testify and witness against Guled.
In April 2015, the U.S. launched another counter-radicalization program called CVE. The same month they arrested Guled and his friends, and Guled was put into solitary confinement for 5 months. His family was evicted, lost everything, and was homeless for 6 months. They were alienated from their own Somali community, as others feared of being targeted.
While in prison, Guled called Matt, who was doing community organizing to bring awareness to the violence of the war on terror against the Somali community. He asked Matt to teach him philosophy and theology. Thus began an intimate relationship, where Matt and others visited Guled and his friends in prison weekly, sent letters and books.
Hear more of the story below, as well as more from Guled Omar, who leads community gatherings, counsels and encourages inmates, and advocates for kindness.