As U.S. officials grapple with the balance between punishment and rehabilitation for American sympathizers of Islamic State, one judge is embarking on an unprecedented experiment.
U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, a senior federal judge in Minnesota, has recruited a researcher from Germany to evaluate a group of young Somali-American men who attempted to travel overseas to join Islamic State. The goal: figure out why each defendant became radicalized and propose a plan to turn each away from violent extremism.
A deradicalization program like this has never been attempted in the U.S., experts say, and other prosecutors around the country are paying attention to Minnesota as a possible model.
The Minnesota case focuses on 10 men around their early 20s, several of whom bought plane tickets or fake passports but were stopped by law enforcement before they could board planes.
Six of them have pleaded guilty so far, and Judge Davis has ordered the deradicalization evaluation to help shape his sentencing decision, and identify what type of intervention each defendant needs. The evaluation is voluntary, but at least five of the guilty defendants have agreed to participate.
Three defendants are expected to go to trial Monday, while the other remaining defendant successfully made it overseas and is at large.
Judge Davis sought the help of Daniel Koehler, a researcher from Germany who earlier focused on helping young people leave the neo-Nazi movement in Germany and currently runs a German nonprofit that helps implement deradicalization programs.
The Minnesota experiment faces several challenges. In terrorism cases, any punishment that doesn’t include a harsh prison sentence could raise concerns about public safety. And a deradicalization program must navigate the delicate boundaries of the First Amendment’s freedom of speech and religion guarantees. Critics worry it could become a government brainwashing experiment.
But Judge Davis’s undertaking is part of a growing belief among many U.S. officials that the Americans seeking to join Islamic State require a different law-enforcement solution from the past.
More than 80 people in the U.S. have been arrested on Islamic State-related charges since early 2014, and their average age is 26, much younger than previous terrorism defendants. They are overwhelmingly U.S. citizens.
Unlike the sophisticated operatives in groups like al Qaeda, these defendants usually had no prior military training and were first exposed to Islamic State’s ideology through social media.
The program in Minnesota signals a potential willingness in law enforcement to consider alternatives to lengthy incarceration with this unusual group, especially because hefty prison time could push them further toward extremism, experts say.
“Right now, we have intel, detection, investigation, arrest. There’s no in-between there,” said John Miller, the New York Police Department’s deputy commissioner for counterterrorism, in a recent speech.
“It is time to try different modes of intervention...to see how many people can we walk away from this not in handcuffs,” Mr. Miller said.
Judge Davis declined to comment for this article. He has been quoted in news reports saying the program isn’t intended for the defendants to avoid prison time, but to assess whether they are open to treatment.
Judge Davis visited Berlin in December, where Mr. Koehler shared his background and intervention philosophies with the judge over lunch.
Although 40 to 50 deradicalization programs exist in other countries, researchers say it is difficult to measure whether these methods are successful. Mr. Miller, for instance, pointed out that some current leaders of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were graduates of Saudi Arabia’s deradicalization program.
Judge Davis learned firsthand about the difficulties of deradicalization last year, when he allowed one defendant in the case, 20-year-old Abdullahi Yusuf, to spend time before trial in a halfway house and undergo counseling, instead of waiting in jail. Mr. Yusuf was sent back to federal custody a few months later, after a box cutter was found under his bed.
Mr. Koehler flew to Minneapolis in mid-April and spent about two weeks interviewing Mr. Yusuf and the other defendants, as well as family members and Somali community leaders. He also conducted training for probation office staff on the elements of jihadist ideology and the deradicalization process. He hopes to present a proposal to the judge within the next three months.
The experience has raised questions among defense lawyers.
“Is [radicalization] a disease that you cure with psychotherapy or a pill? If the deradicalization is for him to moderate his religious beliefs, I can’t do that,” said Kenneth Udoibok, who represents 20-year-old Adnan Farah, one of the defendants.
Mr. Koehler said in an interview that the ultimate deradicalization program could include several components, including job training, volunteer work in the community and religious counseling.
Minnesota has been viewed as a pioneer in efforts to counter violent extremism. For years, terrorist groups like al-Shabaab, and now Islamic State, have tried to recruit foreign fighters from the large Somali-American community in Minneapolis, spurring efforts from the U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota to work more closely with the community on prevention efforts, including partnering with local non-profits to provide funding for youth programs.
Such programs around the country have often run into resistance from Muslim community members, who say they feel unfairly targeted by the government. Sadik Warfa, a Somali community leader in Minneapolis, says he hopes Judge Davis’s deradicalization program will address the broader catalysts that may have pushed the young men to espouse radical ideas, including the barriers Somali immigrants face when seeking higher-level jobs.
Deradicalization attempts elsewhere in the U.S. have been uneven. Last summer, defense lawyers for Adam Shafi, a 23-year-old from Fremont, Calif., who allegedly tried to join a terrorist group in Syria, drew up a proposal that would allow Mr. Shafi to avoid criminal prosecution and undergo counseling instead with Mr. Koehler.
But momentum for the program stopped after the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., according to Mr. Shafi’s lawyer.
In Chicago, prosecutors might unveil more details of a proposed deradicalization program at the June 15 sentencing of Mohammed Hamzah Khan, a 20-year-old who attempted to travel overseas to Syria with his two younger siblings to join Islamic State. Officials in Chicago haven’t said what Mr. Khan’s program will entail.