Federal authorities in Minnesota are looking at ways to steer some terrorism offenders away from radical ideologies and safely back into society.
In a national first, they are considering adopting pretrial release and probation programs that would blend traditional supervision with counseling and other services to move young people away from militancy.
The head of federal probation in Minneapolis recently traveled to study “deradicalization” initiatives in Europe, where their use has grown, triggering intense controversy. Leaders of the Twin Cities’ East African community and attorneys for nine young men charged with trying to join Middle East militants have pitched their own proposals for allowing the suspects to leave jail as they await trials or sentencing.
With a limited track record for such programs and heightened public anxiety about homegrown terrorism, officials say they are moving cautiously. Attorneys believe it is unlikely the government will sign off on a release proposal before a May trial for five of the defendants.
“You have to balance deradicalization and public safety, with public safety being paramount,” said Kevin Lowry, the chief U.S. probation officer in Minneapolis. “It’s a challenge.”
Early last year, Judge Michael Davis approved an experimental release for one of three defendants who pleaded guilty to charges stemming from a plan to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, in Syria. The program, which combined mentoring and electronic monitoring, drew national attention.
The defendant, Abdullahi Yusuf, returned to jail last summer, but the nonprofit Heartland Democracy says it continues to work with him and with probation officials.
A case for release
Yusuf, then an 18-year-old community college student, was the first to plead guilty in February as part of an ongoing FBI investigation. Davis signed off on a Heartland Democracy program that connected Yusuf with a team of religious scholars, teachers and other mentors. But in May, Yusuf was taken back into custody after staff at the St. Paul halfway house where he lived found a box cutter taped under his bed.
That spring, six more young men were arrested as part of the same investigation. Attorneys, family members and community supporters argued that the men should be allowed to await trial out of jail. They pointed to the suspects’ lack of criminal history and questioned the strength of the government’s case against them.
A group of community leaders made a proposal: Local mosques would take responsibility for each man, with imams working to convince the suspects that terror groups sell a distorted version of Islam. The defendants would wear electronic monitors and check in with probation officers.
Davis wasn’t sold. Given the charges that they tried to join the most violent terror group in the world, he said the young men are flight risks and pose a danger to the community.
Supporters continue to argue for supervised release — even as they recognize that the recent San Bernardino mass shooting has not helped their case. They say such a move would undercut ISIL propaganda about the U.S. government.
“We need to have a program in place to give these young men a second chance,” said Sadik Warfa, a community leader and a spokesman for some defendants’ families. “Jail is not the answer.”
Attorneys say they do not have high hopes. A grand jury handed up a tougher new charge of conspiracy to commit murder abroad against five of the men in November, carrying the potential for life in prison.
“It’s clear that the government is likely to oppose any effort for pretrial release for defendants who haven’t entered into a plea agreement,” said Glenn Bruder, the attorney for Guled Omar.
Attorney Jon Hopeman said he also doesn’t believe he can persuade the government to let his client, Zacharia Abdurahman, out of jail until his sentencing, even though he has reached a plea deal.
Looking to Europe
At the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services in Minneapolis, Lowry said he cannot discuss whether individual defendants might be candidates for the programs his office is looking to design. He stressed that the effort is at an early stage and still needs funding.
Over nine days in October, Lowry met with government officials, nonprofits and others in Berlin and London. He looked at programs designed to intervene with would-be jihadis, from people whose families worry they might have tuned in to radical propaganda to those returning from fighting in the Middle East. One German program, an offshoot of a long-standing effort to “deprogram” neo-Nazis, helps family members intervene with young recruits.
As hundreds of young people have left Europe to join radical groups, such intervention programs have multiplied and drawn scrutiny. They can involve religious instruction, psychological counseling, job training or cautionary tales from “formers,” militants disillusioned with violent jihad.
Critics on the right question whether such programs can effectively wrest people from the grip of radicalism; they call for a tough law enforcement and long sentences. On the left, detractors say intervention programs can stigmatize Muslim communities and ensnare people for voicing unpopular views.
To Lowry, the challenge lies in finding a proven approach. Some of these programs have been around for almost a decade, but reliable data on their effectiveness is still scarce.
“People claim some level of success, but I think there’s not as much research and numbers as we’d like,” he said.
Lorenzo Vidino, the director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, points to a program in Denmark to rehabilitate returning fighters who often cannot be charged because of insufficient evidence. Officials in that country, which U.S. Attorney Andy Luger visited last year, note only one of more than 30 participants has headed back to the Middle East. But, says Vidino, proving that the program produced that outcome is hard. And that approach would be a tough sell in the United States, which has much stricter penalties for terror-related offenses.
“Nobody’s under the illusion that these programs work all the time,” said Vidino. “It’s not threat elimination. It’s threat reduction.”
Looking for ‘off-ramp’
Davis said he remains open to a strong pretrial release arrangement, but he wouldn’t say if he is now entertaining any proposals.
“We want to make sure the community is safe, and those individuals come out and don’t reoffend,” he said.
Defense attorneys such as Hopeman said they have not been consulted by probation officials.
Mary McKinley, executive director of Heartland Democracy, said her organization is refining its program and looking for money to expand it. She says the program also drew on European initiatives.
“In learning from our European partners, it’s probably not a good idea to just send these young people to prison and wait for them to come out,” she said.
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek has advocated for an “off-ramp” intervention program as an alternative to criminal charges. He said there’s also a need to ease people convicted of terror-related offenses back into the community. To him, it wouldn’t be that different from existing supervision and support for gang members and drug offenders.
“When you are charged with a drug offense, we get you off the heroin,” he said. “We help you get clean.”