US: Minnesota’s Radical Experiment in Jihadi Rehab

This past week, at a pre-trial hearing for five young Somali-Americans accused of attempting to join the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis announced that he would consider moving the men from prison to a halfway house while they awaited trial, provided that their lawyers could come up with a satisfactory “creative release” plan. The government’s prosecutors lodged no objections. Their silence must have surprised those assembled in the Minneapolis courtroom. Several months ago, when Davis suggested that a defendant named Abdullahi Yusuf receive similar treatment, prosecutors balked. “Someone who wanted to kill innocent people and is willing to travel abroad to do so needs to serve prison time,” Andrew Luger, the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, told me in January. “How do we lower the number of people travelling to Syria to fight? My first answer: You’ve got to prosecute people. Part of the reintegration in the community is serving time for what you did.”

On Thursday, an official in Luger’s office said that the U.S. Attorney’s thinking “is evolving.” He appears to have concluded, like Davis, that Minneapolis is well positioned for a grand experiment, one that this country has never tried: the de-radicalization of terrorism suspects. Until recently, U.S. counterterrorism officials had seen that strategy as irrelevant. The number of Americans who radicalized in the first place was always relatively small, so building a curriculum to defuse extremist ideology seemed unnecessary. Then ISIS happened, and dozens of U.S. nationals started departing for the battlefields of the Middle East. According to federal law-enforcement officials, the Twin Cities area alone is home to around forty young men and women who either are planning to travel to Syria to join ISIS, have been arrested while allegedly trying to do so (we don’t know about all of the arrests, because some of the cases remain sealed), or have succeeded in joining the group and are fighting in Syria now. It has become clear, in other words, that the U.S. government cannot incarcerate its way out of the problem.

“We’re moving slowly,” Mary McKinley, who has been leading the effort to design a rehabilitation program for Yusuf, told me. In the past, as the executive director of the nonprofit organization Heartland Democracy, she has worked mostly with “turnarounds”—people who are in the criminal-justice system for one reason or another and want to get back on track. None of them have faced terrorism charges. Yusuf was intercepted by the F.B.I. just before he boarded a plane in Minneapolis, and before the beheading of James Foley had made clear to many Americans the true extent of ISIS’s brutality. In other words, he wasn’t yet beyond help. Still, McKinley said, “We want to get this right. We haven’t done this before—not very many people have done this before.” Indeed, although there are dozens of de-radicalization programs around the world, no one seems quite sure what goes into a good one. Most offer psychological counselling of some sort and try to get the former jihadi’s family involved. In Saudi Arabia, the focus is on finding him a job and a wife, in the hopes that this will diminish his desire to fight. But, for every success story, there is a counterexample: the current head of Al Qaeda’s arm in Yemen, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, is a graduate of the Saudi program.

Before any of this latest crop of young travellers is released to a halfway house, their lawyers will need to satisfy Davis’s demand for a creative form of rehabilitation. In the meantime, there has been a hiccup. Last week, Yusuf was returned to prison for allegedly violating the terms of his release. (Both his lawyers and the U.S. Attorney’s office decline to say what he did, but officials close to the case caution not to read too much into it; in a halfway house, tiny infractions can have enormous consequences, and neither Davis nor Luger has ruled out his re-release.) Yusuf’s curriculum was only just beginning to take shape. Among other things, he had been sitting down occasionally with a fellow Somali-American named Ahmed Amin, a member of McKinley’s staff at Heartland, who gave him a reading list that included Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and the U.S. Constitution. He was also being encouraged to read news coverage of his own case, to give him a sense of how he has affected his community.

All five of the defendants who stood before Davis this week—Adnan Farah, Hanad Musse, Guled Omar, Hamza Ahmed, and Zacharia Abdurahman—are high-school friends. None of them previously had a criminal record, and all seemed to be making the transition from youth to adulthood as well as could be expected when ISIS beguiled them; they were in community college, they were looking for jobs. The question now is whether the young men, with help from the U.S. justice system, can pick back up where they left off.

Comments

comments