When James Fergusson, a journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland, decided to write a book about a chaotic African nation, he initially had no clue that his research would require a visit to Minneapolis.
It turns out that one of the largest populations of Somalis outside their national borders is in the Twin Cities. Some of those residents are almost surely linked to violent organizations overseas and thus might constitute a terrorist threat, according to Fergusson. He was drawn to Minneapolis in large part by the presence of Omer Abdi Mohamed, a resident who had pleaded guilty to a U.S. government charge of conspiring to recruit warriors for possible illegal activities within and outside North America.
Beyond Omer’s case, Fergusson wondered why the Twin Cities had become the destination of between 75,000 to 100,000 Somalis, especially given the frigid weather — frigid, at least, compared with the parched heat in the Horn of Africa.
Here is part of the answer, in a fascinating paragraph written by Fergusson: Lutherans whose ancestors arrived from Scandinavia to settle Minnesota run social service agencies efficiently and generously. “A number of voluntary Somali migrants, mostly professionals with ambitions to study or to set up businesses, had been drawn to the Twin Cities even before the [Somali] civil war by the abundance of jobs and social housing on offer, at a time when the local economy was conspicuously booming. Word soon spread of the good life in Minnesota, making the state the destination of choice when the main refugee exodus began in the early 1990s.” When Fergusson visited Minneapolis, he identified “the de facto parliament of the Somali community” as a Starbucks coffee shop just off Riverside Avenue.
While in the Twin Cities, Fergusson concluded that the large refugee population consists mostly of hardworking Somalis. But he demonstrates that the recruitment of suicide bombers has occurred in the Twin Cities, and that various gangs of Somali refugees have shattered the peace of the Twin Cities from time to time.
Most of his book, “The World’s Most Dangerous Place” (DaCapo, 405 pages, $27.50), is set in Africa, not the Twin Cities. In Somalia, Fergusson tries to understand the reasons for and the blowback from the invasion of U.S. troops, as well as troops supplied by other nations.
The interventions seem unlikely to halt the civil war there or the mass starvation that has resulted. No nation wants to be thought of as the world’s most dangerous place. Somalia, however, is deserving of that appellation, Fergusson insists.
Steve Weinberg is the author of eight nonfiction books. He reviews books regularly for the Star Tribune.