ST. PAUL, Minn. — In the war for young people's hearts and minds, Mohamed Ahmed hopes to use cartoons to dissuade a generation raised on "The Simpsons" and "South Park" from taking up arms for the Islamic State group and other extremist causes.
Ahmed, a convenience store manager from Minneapolis, has launched AverageMohamed.com, a website offering homemade videos aimed at countering the messages and images terrorists use to lure disaffected youths into holy war.
"I don't want my children fighting this war. Let's end this in my generation," said Ahmed, a married father of four young children.
Sitting in his sparsely furnished recording studio, Ahmed, 39, said he started his videos out of frustration.
"I've decided to take on one value at a time, one item at a time, to shoot down extremist ideology and philosophy," he said. He took the moniker "Average Mohamed" because of the worldwide popularity among Muslims of the Prophet Muhammad's name.
Ahmed is operating out of an urban area that has been a target of terror recruiters. Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the U.S. Since 2007, an estimated 20 to 25 young Minnesotans have traveled to Somalia to take up arms with al-Shabab, a terrorist group linked to al-Qaida. And authorities say a handful of Minnesota residents have traveled to Syria to fight with militants within the last year.
Ahmed, who shows his videos at community centers or mosques, uses bright, simple cartoons aimed at kids ages 8 to 16. "Easy to use, easy to understand, easy to tell others," he said.
Ahmed records voiceovers with the help of an engineer and has a friend in Southeast Asia create the animation. Each video costs up to $4,000 to make. His website features seven cartoons — in English, Somali and Swahili — that have drawn more than 11,800 views in the last six months and also can be found on YouTube. Ahmed said he hopes to get funding from a government agency to allow him to produce many more videos in the next two years. He'd also like to hire a social media expert to spread the messages rather than relying on word of mouth.
In response to "Flames of War" — a slickly produced, 55-minute extremist propaganda video featuring images of exploding tanks and wounded U.S. soldiers — Ahmed released a minute-long video, "Flames of Hell," showing a cartoon masked gunman shooting bound captives in the desert.
"How many innocent children, women and men has Islamic State killed just today? Do you want to save mankind or kill mankind? That is your choice," the voice of Average Mohamed intones between gunshots.
Omar Jamal, a local Somali community activist, said he thinks the Average Mohamed videos, which incorporate citations from the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad, counter the core message of extremists that God is on their side against infidels. He said a recent presentation of Average Mohamed videos at a community center in Minneapolis triggered an "amazing" discussion among young people who need to hear the anti-terrorism message.
"It's another resource that we need, that we can say, 'OK, why don't you watch this video, instead of watching videos that are misleading you?'" said Abdirahman Mukhtar, a youth coordinator at Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis.
FBI Special Agent Kyle Loven said that he could not comment specifically on Average Mohamed's videos but that the agency has worked with individuals and groups trying to counter radicalization efforts and will continue doing so.
Ahmed wants to make creating anti-terrorism videos his life's work.
"One thing I know is that an extremist is not made. They are not born that way. Somebody trained them to become an extremist," he said. "And somebody has to train people to become non-extremists. And that is my job. That is officially my job now."
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