The German scholar hired to evaluate six Minnesota men convicted on ISIL-related charges says their case is symptomatic of what he calls the "radicalization recipe" that persuades young Westerners to take up arms with jihadis abroad or commit acts of violence at home.
Speaking with reporters after a second day of court testimony, Daniel Koehler said terror groups exploit both the frustrations of potential recruits, like being bullied or losing a job, and their hopes, like defending children or building a society.
"Radical ideologies create a trauma," Koehler said. "They show you that you are suffering because you are special, because you are part of that true group, the chosen ones in that special sense. They will offer you a solution."
Koehler, hired earlier this year as part of the nation's first "terrorism disengagement and deradicalization" court program, testified Tuesday and Wednesday about his interviews with six of the nine men convicted in the past year of plotting to join the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Koehler later described the process as a new step in trying to determine how to sentence — and rehabilitate — terror defendants.
"For the first time, there is at least a gradual process of thinking about what if these thoughts and ideas actually determined this behavior and ... led them to the point where they did something illegal," Koehler said. "And what do we do with them when they get out?"
In court testimony earlier Wednesday, Koehler suggested that one defendant would benefit from placement in a halfway house, but said another was still high risk because he lied throughout their interview.
U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, who has sentenced a dozen defendants in previous cases involving the terror group Al-Shabab, reached out to Koehler to evaluate the six men who pleaded guilty in the ISIL probe and to train U.S. Probation staff on conducting similar assessments in the future.
Despite Koehler's lengthy testimony, Davis reminded both defendants and prosecutors that the scholar's evaluations would be just one factor when he determines sentences in November for the six men — and three co-defendants convicted after a May trial. For a second day, Davis also emphasized the stakes in this case.
"Terrorists, even those with no prior criminal behavior, are unique among criminals in the likelihood of recidivism, the difficulty of rehabilitation and the need for incapacitation," Davis said, reading from a circuit court opinion. "Terrorism is a different animal and I want to make sure everybody understands where the court is coming from."
'I'm not a detective'
Earlier Wednesday, Koehler presented his assessments for the last two of the six defendants he evaluated. He said he concluded that defendant Hanad Musse has a high risk of reoffending because he lied to cover up for his co-defendants while they were awaiting trial. Musse later wrote Koehler to apologize, but Koehler cited the interview as a lack of "cognitive opening" for deradicalization.
That conclusion upset some defendants' relatives, like Deqa Hussen, whose son Abdirizak Warsame was also still deemed high risk. "My son said someone brainwashed him, he pleaded guilty, he said he's sorry," Hussen said.
Defense attorneys also criticized the open-ended nature of Koehler's interviews after seeing how he factored their clients' answers into his findings. In an interview, Koehler explained that he sought to learn how the men framed their own roles in the case, how far their stories went back in time and whether they displayed any critical reflection.
"I'm not an investigator, I'm not a detective, I'm not a law enforcement officer," Koehler said. "I do not want to press them to reveal a certain truth."
After his interview with Adnan Farah, days after Farah pleaded guilty in April, Koehler determined that Farah could benefit from a lesser sentence and placement in a halfway house. Farah's attorney, Kenneth Udoibok, agreed that Farah "was at a point that with some intervention he could return to normalcy."
Koehler also factored in Farah's decision to plead guilty against the wishes of family members — his older brother, Mohamed Farah, was convicted at trial — but said he "still has a high degree of radical thinking with him" despite disavowing ISIL.
Koehler will stay in Minnesota through the week to train more U.S. Probation staff and evaluate Abdul Raheem Ali-Skelton, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to lying to federal agents.
But Minnesota officials still acknowledge their counterterrorism programming lacks a key element. While a pilot project has attempted to discover how to intervene with vulnerable youth before law enforcement is needed, and Koehler is recommending programs to reintroduce offenders into society on their release from prison, a third pillar remains missing: a tailored program for terrorism inmates in federal prison.
"If a radicalized defendant or offender is not properly treated, they will continue to infect our communities ... and they'll look to harm the community and martyr themselves if [they're not treated] with a balance between rehabilitation and public safety," said Kevin Lowry, Minnesota's chief federal probation officer.