Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in south Minneapolis. Credit: Sheila Mulrooney Eldred | Sahan Journal

Around 10 p.m. on Sept. 1, 2020, Mohamet Ali finished prayers at Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, a mosque in the Midtown Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. On his way home, he realized he’d left a USB drive at a neighboring school, where he works as a property manager. He parked next to the door on 13th Avenue S. and quickly retrieved the USB drive from his office. 

But when he got back to his car to drive home, at least two young people rushed over. One pointed a gun at him, Mohamet later told the police, while the other took his key. Bystanders tried to go after the men, but Mohamet warned them about the gun and told them to call the police instead.

According to the police report, the carjackers took off with Mohamet’s black Honda Accord long before the police arrived an hour later, Mohamet said. Five days later, police found his car in north Minneapolis, totaled. 

Mohamet now drives a new car, but he prays from home instead of going to Abubakar As-Saddique for isha, the last prayer of the day. And his family worries every time he goes out at night. 

Mohamet’s experience presaged a rash of about eight carjackings associated with Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center that occurred mostly last summer, according to Abduallahi Farah, executive director of the mosque. Between May 1 and November 1 last year, the Midtown Phillips neighborhood experienced 13 carjackings, according to the city of Minneapolis’ crime dashboard.

The congregation is so distraught, Abduallahi said, that about 100 fewer people are coming to prayer after dark. Sahan Journal spoke to three victims about the crimes and their fears. 

Leaders are hoping prevention efforts can save the area from another rash of carjackings this summer. Mosque leaders and neighbors met with Mayor Jacob Frey, Ward 9 City Council Member Jason Chavez, and Third Precinct Inspector Jose Gomez police about crime in the area in May. And the mosque has applied for city programs and federal funding to beef up security measures.

Midtown Phillips neighborhood experiences a rise in some violent crimes 

The Midtown Phillips neighborhood stretches from Lake Street to 24th Street and Bloomington Ave. S. to Chicago Ave. S., and encompassses landmarks like the Midtown Global Market and Abbott and Children’s Hospitals. Other violent crimes in the neighborhood have increased year over year. In the first five months of 2021, the neighborhood saw one murder; in 2022, there have been three. Robberies have climbed from 12 to 19. 

The Minneapolis Police Department’s nearby Third Precinct was destroyed in the days following George Floyd’s murder and now maintains its headquarters downtown. This shift has caused some mosque leaders to wonder whether there are fewer police in the area. (The relocation shouldn’t impact how many cops are patrolling an area, a police spokesman said.)

This is a place of worship, where people come to find tranquility and peace of mind, and at the same time if it’s not safe in here. We should not have to worry for our safety when we come here to cleanse our hearts and minds [and] to leave daily problems outside.

Abduallahi Farah, executive director of Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center

The mall across the street, Medina Mall, is seeing fewer customers, too, said mall manager Mahamed Cali. And parents at Aim Academy, next door to the mosque, worry about visiting for family events after dark, principal Abdirashid Abdi said. 

Jason Chavez, who became the neighborhood’s council member in January, says that other places of worship, including St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church and Mercy Islamic Center, have asked for security support as well. They’ve cited an uptick in break-ins and gun violence, in addition to the carjackings. 

Since opening 20 years ago, Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center has become an important hub for the Somali community in south Minneapolis, Imam Mowlid Ali said, and safety is the mosque’s No. 1 priority.

“This is a place of worship, where people come to find tranquility and peace of mind, and at the same time if it’s not safe in here,” Abduallahi said. “We should not have to worry for our safety when we come here to cleanse our hearts and minds [and] to leave daily problems outside.” 

Fewer than 1 in 5 Minneapolis carjackings lead to arrests. The city seeks solutions.  

Prior to the pandemic, most U.S. police departments didn’t keep separate statistics on carjackings because they were so rare. But over the past two years, the crime has skyrocketed in cities across the country and caught the public’s attention. 

So far this year, Minneapolis has registered 214 carjackings, according to the city’s online crime dashboard. That’s roughly the same number as the city saw in the same time period last year (211). 

About 17 percent of the carjacking cases from 2021 have resulted in arrests, according to Minneapolis police spokesperson Officer Garrett Parten, with further arrests possible.

Recently, however, “Carjackings are trending down [citywide], and my hope is that’s going to continue,” said Parten, noting a 30 percent decrease in the last 30 days over the same time period last year. “My hope is it’s going to be sustained—but in the back of our minds, I think we’re also thinking, ‘Hey, it’s summer.’”

But eight of those carjackings in 2022 have occurred in Midtown Phillips, compared to four in the same time period last year.

When an area is experiencing extra crime, police loop through the area more often, Parten said. But he noted that the total police force is down 300 officers from a staff of 834 in May of 2020.

Requests have increased dramatically for funding to help prevent carjackings and other violent crimes. When the city’s Office of Violence Prevention requested proposals for violence prevention projects this spring, it received over 100 applications, totaling over $7 million. That’s 10 times the amount of available funding (even as funding has doubled since 2019).  

Funding has gone to a number of south Minneapolis nonprofits. For example, American Indian OIC will lead a project for a licensed therapist to provide trauma-informed group therapy for young men who are re-entering the community after incarceration. And the Elliot Park Neighborhood received funding to support street events and safety patrols. 

Chavez and Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center leaders are working on an application they plan to submit soon. 

The mosque has also applied for government grants through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. A total of $125 million is available for religious organizations in urban areas nationally through the Nonprofit Security Grant Program to bolster security. Last year, 15 Minnesota nonprofits were awarded funding between $65,000 and $150,000 each.

Recipients included seven mosques (Masjed Abubakr Al-Seddiq, Inc., Moorhead–Fargo Islamic Center, Al-Ihsan Islamic Center, Al Maa’unn, ICM Abukhadra Masjid, Imam Husain Islamic Center, and Islamic Center of Minnesota) and five Jewish organizations.

Ward 9 city councilman Jason Chavez has proposed a program that would train neighborhood residents to de-escalate situations as unarmed community safety specialists. The goal would be to triage emergencies that require a police response, and address other incidents with referrals to social services. 

At the May 13 neighborhood meeting, Mayor Jacob Frey told mosque leaders and concerned citizens that their safety was his responsibility. And he pledged to protect the community.

Stepping up security at Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center

Researchers and criminologists are still pinpointing why carjackings have risen across the U.S. during the pandemic years. And they still don’t know how to prevent them.

Mohamed Mohamud, a graduate student in the master of science in security technologies (MSST) program at the University of Minnesota, attends Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center for Friday prayers. For his capstone master’s degree project, Mohamed is analyzing security vulnerabilities at houses of worship in Minnesota, and he’s lent his expertise to Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center. 

Carjackers may be targeting places where parking is tricky, for example. “They know this doesn’t have enough parking spaces, that people park far away, and they’re taking advantage of that,” Mohamed said. “They know moms and older people carry cash and [valuable] items, and they’re using the mosque as a bait.”

Mohamed has advised the mosque to address vulnerabilities in the building that could help prevent carjackings—and perhaps limit the risk of hate crimes. A fence and better lighting, for example, could deter would-be carjackers and thieves, he said. Training imams and leaders could be helpful in situations when the building should be evacuated. And encouraging communication between mosques in the metro area could prevent a situation at one site from reoccurring at another. 

But all of that costs money, and Abduallahi, the executive director, said contributions during the pandemic have been down. 

Hiring off-duty police and private security

Last summer, Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center hired an off-duty police officer for $500 a night. The mosque also contracted with a private security company for a guard to patrol during peak and after-dark hours, at a cost of $5,000 per month. 

But the mosque leaders said the extra security wasn’t enough to prevent some of the carjackings. 

Around 5 p.m. on an October evening, for example, two young people carjacked mosque-goer Abdirazak Hussein while he was sitting in his car in the parking lot. The security guard was elsewhere on the property, Abdirazak said. 

“They came from nowhere and one put a gun at my head and said, ‘get out’ and asked to give them the keys and my wallet,” said Abdirazak. “I did and then they took the car and left.”

Police found the car the same night, with $2,000 in damages. 

Abdirazak, who lives in Richfield and works in Woodbury, said he has stopped coming to the mosque as frequently, because he now feels unsafe in Minneapolis. 

Mall manager recalls carjacking at gunpoint

Carjackings near mosques and places of worship are likely crimes of opportunity, and not often hate crimes, Mohamed, the graduate student, said. Both the mall across the street from the mosque and the new STEM school next to the mosque report similar problems. 

On February 5, for example, Mahamed Cali, the Medina Mall manager, headed to evening prayers at Abubakar As-Saddique. 

“I noticed two young girls and two boys, and when I parked the car they followed me and I saw two running behind me,” said Mahamed. “They said, ‘Give me the key, give me the key, give me the phone.’” 

At first, Mahamed tried to hold onto his phone and keys, he said. But one of them hit him in the head with a pistol and held the gun to his chest. 

“When I saw they were not joking I gave them the key and phone and everything,” he said. Some prayer-goers tried to block the entrance to the parking lot, “but they just fly and run away.” Police found Mahamed’s 2019 black Mercedes-Benz SUV two days later in north Minneapolis with almost $10,000 of damage, he said. 

“It’s very scary, and it’s not only me; it happens to someone every day,” he said. “Everybody is feeling unsafe and we don’t see help yet.”

Shops in the mall have been closing early since last summer to avoid crime, Mahamed said. Business there is down about 50 percent.

Parents of students at Aim Academy worry about nearby carjackings. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Charter school parents call before attending family nights

Parents also worry about carjacking when they visit school, said Abdirashid Abdi, principal of Aim Academy, a charter school that serves mostly Somali families in grades 6–10. Abdirashid described how those fears play out in family involvement at the school. Parents have called before the annual student showcase, for example, asking if it was safe to attend.

“I cannot tell them they can be safe,” Abdirashid said. “But we say we hope you don’t have any issues and encourage you to come.”

Abdirashid was optimistic after the May meeting with the mayor. But Abduallahi, the mosque’s executive director, is still skeptical— especially given Mahamed’s recent carjacking experience.

“City officials need to do what they are obligated to, to come up with a good plan and provide for the security and safety of this neighborhood,” Abduallahi said. “Politicians always come and talk, but at the end of the day it’s usually empty promises.”

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred writes stories about health equity for Sahan Journal. As a freelance journalist, she has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, FiveThirtyEight, NPR, STAT News and...