As a stream of terrorism cases flooded Minnesota’s federal courts four years ago, its chief probation officer was given a controversial task: deradicalize the would-be jihadi extremists being charged.
After retiring in late December, Kevin Lowry published a report on his experiences creating the country’s first deradicalization program. While it’s still too early to say if the program will work — and with the first 30 cases being too few to measure — early results have been promising.
For example, 40 percent of defendants who were involved with foreign terrorist organizations were deemed appropriate for release before their sentencing, then placed in the program, according to Lowry’s report. Nearly all of them successfully completed the program and were not charged with any new crime or violating their probation.
But of the two who failed, one orchestrated a radicalization process for young people at a local Muslim school.
That was an early case, Lowry said in an interview, and one that helped show the need for better communication between federal agencies handling the cases and assessment of the risks involved.
“I don’t believe that would happen today, knowing what we know now,” Lowry said.
The deradicalization program came after dozens of cases hit Minnesota’s federal courts when young Somali men were charged with terroristic acts, such as trying to leave the country to fight for ISIS and other terror groups.
U.S. District Judge Michael Davis sought a way to ensure the defendants would stop their involvement in terrorist activities. After realizing there was no program like that in the United States, he sent Lowry along with a defense attorney to Europe, where they researched other programs and came back with reports.
“Deradicalization is a misnomer,” Davis said. “People start thinking you’re trying to change people’s viewpoints. I was interested in disengagement.”
Lowry said when he first started his work he was accused of “coddling terrorists.” But his job was to make sure those being released or put on monitoring pending a trial wouldn’t reoffend, he said.
The approach to monitoring and deradicalizing terrorists is mostly similar to other high-risk criminals, Lowry said. It includes assessing them for their risk of reoffending, separating them from people who radicalized them in the first place and involving them in new communities.
Following a model developed by a German researcher, Lowry’s program also worked to identify how the extremists were first radicalized and what they hoped to achieve. Mentors, counselors and treatment providers were brought in to rehabilitate the extremists. For Islamic extremists, involving them with religious support was crucial.
“This is the only program I know of in the U.S. that systemically evaluates people,” said Kurt Braddock, a Penn State professor who studies deradicalization. “They’re doing individual assessments and treatments, rather than take a one-size-fits-all approach.”
It’s an approach that Lowry’s office also started using with white nationalists being charged with federal crimes. He said there were similarities between that group and jihadists. Both groups radicalize members by giving them a sense of meaning, purpose and status, he said.
For both groups, “you need to go back to the underlying factors that incited or inspired the individual to become an extremist,” Lowry said.
The challenge with Lowry’s program and similar ones in Europe is that there is no data that conclusively shows that it works, said Mary Beth Altier, an NYU professor who studies terrorist disengagement.
“It is difficult to show scientifically or prove that they work as you do not have a control group of individuals to compare them to,” she said. And while someone might have successfully completed a program today, it doesn’t mean they won’t reoffend in the future.
Braddock said he was cautiously optimistic about Lowry’s program.
“The Minnesota program can set the foundation for what can be done in a radicalization setting,” Braddock said.
Lowry believes it will work because it was modeled on European programs that have also shown success.
“We’re using practices that have worked in other cases and circumstances,” he said.