Friday, January 21, 2022

An Average Man Takes on ISIS Online

Activist creates cartoon videos under the persona ‘Average Mohamed’ to fight back against terror propaganda

Mohamed Amin Ahmed manages a gas station in Minneapolis. He is a father to four children, all under the age of 8. And in his spare time, he fights back against the Islamic State propaganda he believes is poisoning his local community.

Mr. Ahmed, 40, is one of a handful of Muslim leaders in the U.S. engaging in direct messaging against Islamic State on social media. Mr. Ahmed, whose online persona is “Average Mohamed,” makes animated cartoon videos debunking various parts of the terrorist group’s ideology, explaining, for instance, why beheadings don’t comport with true Islam.

Hesitation to speak out directly against Islamic State may be due to fear of retaliation, said Mr. Ahmed, who has received death threats on his YouTube account. “I have life insurance. I’m not stupid,” he joked.

At the Somali Independence Day Festival in Minneapolis in July, Mohamed Amin Ahmed, left, explains the importance of responsible social-media behavior to a woman and her daughter and her daughter’s friend, both 12. PHOTO: SARAH STACKE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

He was prompted to act when he saw how many young Muslims were succumbing to Islamic State’s recruitment efforts in Minneapolis, which has the largest Somali-American population in North America. Several young men in Minneapolis have been convicted this year for trying to travel to Syria to fight for the terrorist group.

Mohamed Amin Ahmed, an activist living among the Somali-American population in Minneapolis, creates online cartoon videos for young Muslims to warn them of Islamic State recruitment. Photo: Sarah Stacke for The Wall Street Journal
In talks at schools, mosques and other locales, Mr. Ahmed said he tells young people that if they want to help Syria, they have alternatives that don’t involve joining Islamic State overseas, such as fundraising or writing to local politicians.

Mr. Ahmed received approximately $10,000 from a group of tech firms last year to make the countermessaging cartoons, but he said he can no longer afford to continue the project. He plans to apply for additional funding from the Department of Homeland Security and said it has been difficult to find grants targeted at countermessaging.

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“Foundations have money for diabetes, child sex trafficking, gangs—but no money for anti-extremism,” Mr. Ahmed said. “All of them think it’s a government issue.”

Separation of church and state means the government has to be careful discussing Islamic State and religion, an intersection that Mr. Ahmed can tackle openly in his videos.

Most of the videos cost about $2,000 to make, which includes hiring voice actors and sound engineers. He is working with teachers to incorporate anti-extremism into their curricula and hopes to create an anti-extremism mobile app.

Mr. Ahmed’s videos target children ages 8 to 16, and he seeks direct feedback from them. He initially made posters and live-action videos, but the children complained the format was “too cheesy.” He discovered his cartoons, which are typically under three minutes long, could hold the children’ attentions while delivering a compact message.

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The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London think tank that studied the effectiveness of Mr. Ahmed’s campaign, found his videos spurred young Muslims online to “debate the role of gender in Islam and the struggle of having multiple identities.” A video called “Be Like Aisha,” which focuses on Muslim female empowerment, had the highest number of engagements on Facebook, the study showed.









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