Four young Twin Cities men facing federal terrorism charges have been chosen for a first-of-its kind deradicalization program under the supervision of a Minneapolis judge and a German expert on Islamic extremism.
U.S. District Judge Michael Davis ordered the defendants to undergo an evaluation by the German scholar, who will visit Minnesota in April. The evaluation will factor into Davis’ sentencing decisions — the four face potentially long prison sentences — and will help in designing a program to steer each away from radical ideology.
Davis said the evaluation would help him understand their motives and potential for rehabilitation. “It does not make sense why someone who’s never been involved in any type of criminal activity, was not seriously religious, [would] in a very short period of time want to go over and be involved in jihad,” he said in a briefing with reporters on Wednesday.
The defendants — Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman, Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame, Abdullahi Mohamud Yusuf, and Hanad Mustafe Musse — have pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to provide material support to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The charges followed a monthslong federal investigation into an alleged plot by a group of young men to leave the United States and fight in the Middle East. Five other men have pleaded not guilty and await a May trial.
By all accounts, the program will be the first of its kind in the United States. Such efforts to deprogram radical recruits have gained traction in Europe in recent years as hundreds of young people have left to join Middle Eastern militants. But their track record remains limited.
Davis’ order, issued Wednesday, says Daniel Koehler, a German specialist in Islamic fundamentalism, would identify the factors that drove the radicalization of the defendants, identify their risk of reoffending and specify strategies to steer them away from radical ideologies.
In December, Davis visited Koehler, who helped adapt a Berlin intervention program for neo-Nazis to would-be jihadis.
Davis said Wednesday that defendants will have the option to oppose the order in their cases.
Robert Sicoli, Warsame’s attorney, said he believes incarceration is not the answer for his client. “My assessment of my guy is he is not a threat to anybody,” Sicoli said. “I’m not an expert, but to be honest I don’t think there are any experts on this.”
The evaluations are unrelated to a U.S. Department of Justice pilot project in Minneapolis, one of three nationally, focused on engaging young people in the city’s sizable Somali community. But in a statement Wednesday, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said he was “fully supportive” of Davis’ effort.
Sadik Warfa, a Somali community leader who has served as a spokesman for the families of some defendants, said he welcomes the new program, which he hopes will help ease the young men back into the community. He said he believes families would jump at the chance to participate.
“A deradicalization program can save these kids and put them on the right track,” he said. “Minnesota can lead and show the nation how it’s done.”
But Warfa said he worries the program will put more pressure on other defendants who have pleaded not guilty, while offering those who accepted plea agreements another incentive to testify against their friends.
Those five are still scheduled to stand trial May 9 on charges including providing material support to ISIL and conspiracy to commit murder abroad. The trial of Khaalid Adam Abdulkadir, a 20-year-old Minneapolis man accused of threatening to murder Davis and unnamed federal agents in a series of tweets, is slated to begin next week.
Early last year, Davis approved an experimental release for Yusuf, connecting him with a team of religious scholars, teachers and other mentors. But Yusuf, then an 18-year-old community college student, returned to jail last summer after staff at his St. Paul halfway house found a box cutter taped under his bed.
Faiza Patel, a counterterrorism researcher at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, has been critical of deradicalization programs, partly because she believes they have stigmatized Muslim communities without producing concrete results. She said she doubts such evaluations can pinpoint how radical a person is or how likely they are to engage in future violence.
But, she said, “I have a lot less problems with trying out approaches that are … untested when you are working with individuals that have already pleaded guilty to a crime.”
Koehler will be in Minnesota in April for two weeks to evaluate the four defendants and train staff of the U.S. probation and pretrial services office.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday from Germany via Skype, he said the presence of a “neutral expert” can help families warm to the idea of cooperating. “Of course these families are extremely scared of the authorities and they have no way of knowing what will happen to them,” Koehler said.
The court’s “terrorism disengagement and deradicalization” program will consider factors including defendants’ level of capability or intent to commit acts of violence and try to measure their stage of radicalization.
“Their families need specific plans and tools to reverse that process or stop it in the first place,” he said.