The Somali refugees living in a small meatpacking town in southwestern Kansas loved America. So did the three local men who wanted to kill them.
In the grandeur of a Wichita courtroom in the spring of 2018, three defendants in prison jumpsuits stood trial for conspiring to blow up an apartment complex in the meatpacking town of Garden City, Kansas, that was home to many Somalis. Curtis Allen, 50, Gavin Wright, 52, and the alleged ringleader, Patrick Stein, 49, had talked about planting fertilizer bombs in trucks at the corners of the building. It was the same method favored by al-Qaida terrorists, but the men saw themselves as defenders of an American way of life. They believed Obama was “really” Muslim, and they mistrusted the Muslims they saw in western Kansas, which has become a magnet for immigrants and refugees. The attack was planned for the day after the election to avoid throwing the contest to Hillary Clinton. The FBI rounded them up in October 2016, with a month to spare.
The story had a special resonance for me. I was kidnapped by pirates on a reporting trip to Somalia and spent 32 months as a hostage. I knew what it meant to hate Somalis, and I knew the intolerant side of Islam. But I also knew that hatred was a dead end, a suicidal urge, and after suffering a bitter season of hatred in a distant land — aimed at me, because I was an outsider — I became curious about violent nationalist tendencies in the United States. I wanted to understand the unique dynamics of a diverse town in the Midwest. I’d been gone for a while, and you might even say I felt ignorant about my own country. So I bought a ticket and flew to Kansas.
I landed in Garden City during a freak spring blizzard in the spring of 2017. Howling wind knocked down power lines, sheared massive boughs off trees in front of shingled, porch-fronted bungalows, and killed thousands of cows. I had arranged to meet Ahmed Hassan Ali. He was drinking tea at a place called the African Shop, where you could buy sticky dates and sorghum flour for anjero pancakes in the front room and find hot meals and soccer on TV in the back. Located half a mile from the apartment complex the three defendants targeted, it was a community center, a place to…