Against the background of the 2016 election, a militia allegedly targeted Garden City’s 500-strong Somali community. With anti-Muslim hate groups reportedly surging, residents seek healing – and prefer not to talk about Trump
Ifra Ahmed lived most of her life on the run before finding unlikely sanctuary among the towering grain silos and carpet-flat fields of south-west Kansas.
When she was two years old, her parents carried her from the port city of Kismayo in southern Somalia across the Kenyan border, as they fled the start of the brutal civil war. She languished in an arid refugee camp in Dadaab for two years, and then moved across Lake Victoria to another sprawling camp in southern Uganda, living among 60,000 other displaced people. At school, in a class of 70 children, she excelled, learned English, and applied for permanent resettlement in the US. It took over a decade.
Four years ago, she arrived in Garden City, a remote industrial farming town where the abundance of low-skilled jobs has long drawn refugees and migrants. It was the first place the 28-year-old felt confident calling home. Until the threat of terrible violence occurred once again.
In October last year, federal prosecutors announced that three men affiliated with a loose national anti-government militia movement had been charged with plotting to blow up the small mosque frequented by Garden City’s 500-strong Somali population.
They had monitored apartment blocks, including Ahmed’s, which were known to house refugees, stockpiled an arsenal of weapons, and planned to kill as many Muslims – “cockroaches”, as they called them – as they could by detonating explosives in four trucks laden with ammonium nitrate, according to an affidavit. The assault was due to take place on the day after the election and could have been the deadliest domestic terror attack since the Oklahoma bombing in 1995.
“I thought of having to restart all over again,” Ahmed said, sipping masala chai at her ground floor apartment daubed in pink and purple silks. “I couldn’t even imagine it because I have done it so many times.”
The incident received only fleeting national coverage, occurring less than a month before the presidential election. During a campaign which had already been dominated by Islamophobic slurs and fearmongering over the threats of terrorism, Donald Trump said nothing of the foiled plot. He and his aides have since gone on to perpetuate the falsehood of non-existent attacks since assuming office in order to justify a controversial travel ban imposed against seven Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia.
But the plot did not occur in a vacuum.
According to recent FBI statistics, hate crimes against Muslims soared by 67% in 2015, marking the sharpest increase in targeted crimes against minority groups – and reaching the highest total, 257 incidents – since the year of the 9/11 attacks. Analysts also argue the plot was indicative of an alarming proliferation of anti-Muslim hate groups riding the wave of Trump’s rhetoric. One of the accused plotters told the Guardian that the presidential election had “encouraged” his actions, despite protesting his innocence.
Though the diverse community rallied around its refugees in the wake of the plot, this small county voted overwhelmingly in support of Trump, to the dismay of many immigrants here.
“It is kind of the same fear when Donald Trump was elected and what happened in October,” Ahmed said. But for her, as for many refugees, talking politics in the wake of Trump’s victory was difficult: “The more you talk about politics, the more problems you ask for,” she said.
“The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim,” said Patrick Stein during a conversation with his alleged co-conspirators, Gavin Wright and Curtis Allen, in July 2016. Unbeknown to the group, they were joined by another member who had been secretly recording their activities for the FBI since February and would continue monitoring them until their arrest in October.
At Wright and Allen’s modular home business on a dusty patch of gravel in the outskirts of Liberal, Kansas, a town 60 miles from Garden City, the group – members of a statewide anti-government militia group named the Kansas Security Force (KSF) – had convened a meeting of their own sub-militia called “the Crusaders”. They were plotting targets, according to an affidavit, and pulled up an image of Garden City on Google Maps, dropping pins on locations they labelled “cockroaches”. They had decided to target Muslims in response to the Orlando terror attack that occurred the month before, the affidavit said.
“When we go on operations, there’s no leaving anyone behind, even if it’s a one-year old, I’m serious,” Stein continued. “I guarantee if I go on a mission those little fuckers are going bye-bye.”
At their next meeting, in August, the group decided on their final target, a converted apartment that serves as a community mosque, embedded in the heart of a complex populated entirely by refugees. They began collecting the components to construct a number of large explosives, Stein was recorded testing automatic rifles he was supplied by undercover agents, and Allen collected piles of ammunition that, by the time of his arrest, weighed “close to a metric ton”. They prepared a manifesto to be released at the time of the attack and carried out further reconnaissance trips to Garden City (during one previous trip in February, Stein had shouted “fucking raghead bitches” out of a car window towards a group of Somali women).
The FBI eventually swooped on 11 October, after Allen’s girlfriend reported him to local police for domestic assault and told officers she had seen him preparing a “white powdery substance” she believed to be explosives.
“They had an intense hatred of Muslims,” said a former senior member of the KSF who knew all three men and spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity. “It was just constant.”
The KSF formed in 2012 and had a membership of about 90 people by the time “the Crusaders” were arrested. Most were from south and west Kansas and many were former military personnel. They mostly communicated over social media and so-called “field training” was only occasional and drew small numbers of people.
Stein, the source said, joined the militia around late 2013 and had previously been a member of a larger, more moderate group with which he became disenchanted. He was drawn to the KSF “because it was more based in the constitution”. He brought Wright into the group as well.
Allen, who posted on social media about his support for Trump, was temporarily ejected from the militia at the end of 2014 after allegations of domestic abuse, but was allowed to rejoin about six months later, the source said.
In 2016, as the presidential race intensified, the three men’s ardent Islamophobia became more intense and had spread to other members of the militia. “The group dynamic changed,” said the source. “[They] were saying Islam is a plague, we need to deal with it, we need to watch it, we need to keep an eye on it. Even I fell into it.”
Stein, the source said, had made open comments on the group’s Facebook chat that endorsed violence. The former militiaman estimated about 15 KSF members shared the plotters’ racist views and “two or three” other KSF members attended meetings of this sub-militia, but none were aware of their plans to commit violence.
The KSF believed they had come to the attention of the FBI in March after threatening an armed protest outside a mosque in Wichita, the largest city in the state, against a visiting preacher they deemed an affiliate of the Palestinian fundamentalist group Hamas. But the Guardian was told by a separate source familiar with the investigation that agents had targeted the group well before this.
All three men have pleaded not guilty to domestic terror charges and are expected to face trial in autumn this year.
Lawyers for Allen and Stein declined to comment. In a statement to the Guardian through his lawyer, Wright said he refuted some claims made in the affidavit and had not joined the group until 2016, denied he hated Muslims and argued that he was entitled to engage in “survivalist activities and ‘prepping’” for when “shit hits the fan”.
He added: “Many 2016 candidates for political office in the United States encouraged these same views.”
In 2016, according to research published by the anti-extremist not-for-profit group the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the number of anti-Muslim hate groups in the US almost tripled, increasing from 34 to 101. The research center partially attributed this extraordinary proliferation to Trump’s “incendiary rhetoric” on the campaign trail.
The KSF itself was a chapter within a broader national network of militias, the 3%ers, known for its overt Islamophobia. It was created in 2009 in response to Barack Obama’s election victory and boasts around 400 members, in about seven states, said Chris Hill, a Georgia-based leader of the national movement. All ties to the KSF were cut off after the three men were arrested, and the Kansas chapter itself was shut down shortly after, Hill said.
“They went wrong when they decided to go offensive. We don’t advocate violence on unarmed, innocent people,” said Hill, a paralegal and Trump supporter who also goes by the pseudonym “Bloodagent”. “We have a political grievance, no doubt, that needs to be addressed, and we need to be vocal, but we are defensive in nature.”
Hill’s Georgia chapter itself was also labelled a hate group by the SPLC after the group protested against the extension of a mosque in an Atlanta suburb, which he labelled a “Disneyland for terrorists”, and allegedly threatened local government officials in charge of planning permission in September last year.
In the days after the three men were arrested, there was an outpouring of support from many in the Kansas community. Vigils and prayer services occurred in town, drawing people from across the partisan political divide. Immigrants and refugees from Africa, Latin America and south-east Asia have long been drawn to the city, attracted by the abundance of jobs at a large beef slaughterhouse on the outskirts of town. The city is now only 43% white. Local church groups run family outreach programs and free literacy courses for refugees. A new health clinic with translation services was opened last weekend, funded by donations.
The support was also echoed among conservative politicians in the state.
“I was, frankly, shocked that it [domestic terrorism] would come home to roost in my town here in the midwest. We, our neighbors, our Somalis, our Vietnamese … here in Garden City are determined to get along,” said Dr William Clifford, president of the Finney County Republican party. “The people here, I feel, are vetted, and they’re working hard. They’re contributing,” he added.
Days after the arrest, the Republican governor of Kansas, Sam Brownback, said: “This sort of hate and violence doesn’t have any place in this country, let alone our state.”
But there is a reticence among those in these conservative circles to draw even indirect links between the tenor of the election or local politics and the bomb plot itself.
Months earlier, Brownback had withdrawn Kansas from the federal government’s refugee resettlement program, citing widely discredited national security concerns during the height of the Syrian refugee crisis. Civil liberty groups labelled the move a fearmongering distraction technique.
Clifford, a self-described moderate and the son of an Irish undocumented immigrant, defended the move as exercising a state’s “right to control borders”.
He acknowledged some in the Somali community could have felt “quite threatened” by Trump’s campaign and the travel ban, but argued: “We’re a country of laws, so that’s what I support [the ban]. Mr Trump has promised to support the laws, to enforce the laws, which many of us didn’t feel was being done previously.”
At the Africa Shop, one of the major Somali community hubs a short walk away from the mosque, CNN played in the background as a couple of men shot pool after clocking off from their shifts at the slaughterhouse, where about 5,000 cattle are killed each day.
Abdishakur Mohamed Noor, a homeless 55-year-old from Mogadishu, said he had been sleeping at the mosque at the time the men were arrested. “I was very, very scared,” he said, adding he believed he had seen some of the conspirators surveilling the community in the weeks before. Like Ifra Ahmed, he did not want to talk about Donald Trump.
Aden Ibrahim Knaan, a community leader and owner of the store, received his US citizenship five years ago and is one of the few Somalis comfortable openly discussing politics.
“It [Islamophobia] was something he was using in his campaign to get elected,” he said. “It’s not right at all.”
“There have been many incidences inside America where you hear students getting killed, teachers getting killed, but they never talk about that and they don’t label it as a terrorist act.”
Knaan smiled when the election result in Finney County was mentioned, but shared some of the optimism felt by conservatives, too.
“Donald Trump and the people are two separate entities,” he said through a translator. “Trump is an individual. The people here are a wide spectrum of diverse individuals. We are very happy with those who support us and we welcome all who were there for us.”
Ifra Ahmed also wants to become an American citizen. She is employed at the slaughterhouse, and has risen quickly through the ranks to become a supervisor. As she prepared for her shift, she spoke about her love of Oprah Winfrey and her desire to finish community college to qualify as a veterinarian.
The beginning of February marked her fifth anniversary in the US, meaning she was able to apply for US citizenship. But she decided to withhold the application, fearful of what might happen next.
She had planned to visit her mother, whom she has not seen in a decade, sometime in the fall of this year. But now, as the president plans to introduce another executive order targeting travel from the same seven countries, she has left those plans on hold, too, worried she may not be allowed back into the United States.
“I’m still scared,” she said. “I want everything to calm down.”