Updated: 1:55 p.m., Sept. 22, 2016 | Posted: 6:19 p.m., Sept. 21, 2016
German deradicalization expert Daniel Koehler has finished testifying in federal court about his evaluation of six Twin Cities men who pleaded guilty to terrorism charges.
At the start of the two-day hearings, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis looked out to a packed courtroom and said his job is to make sure the community is safe.
Whatever the prison sentence length, Davis said to the courtroom, the men will be put on supervised release once out.
Then he turned to Koehler and said, "that's why I've had you train our probation officers ... I want to make sure that my probation officers are prepared to handle them when they come into the community."
Koehler is evaluating these defendants as part of a new program Davis is creating called "Terrorism Disengagement and Deradicalization Program."
The idea is to work with individuals to see if the person can be rehabilitated once they've been radicalized. And it would require a network of people, including counselors, mentors, faith leaders, as well as family members.
Nothing like this has been done in the United States.
And because it's unprecedented, the judge hired Koehler — a family counselor who has been working to re-integrate neo-Nazis and jihadists in Germany — as one of its consultants. Koehler heads a Berlin-based nonprofit called the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies, and he's also a fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University's Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.
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In the last six years, Koehler has worked on about 200 individual cases from the field of Islamic extremism. He's counseled foreign fighters who have left Syria and Iraq, and he's counseled mothers whose sons have been killed fighting for jihadist groups.
He testified that his goal is to understand the driving factors for each defendant and assess their risk of re-offending.
For example, whether they're more theological, whether they're more driven by other aspects, what actually made them involved in the conspiracy. I wanted to assess if they have credibly rejected or are in the process of rejecting that specific ideology," he said, "if they have distanced themselves from the conspiracy, if they are about to show true remorse and guilt or any form of doubt in ISIL, its goals or the Jihadi movement."
Koehler's testimony was filled with terms like cognitive openings, pop jihadism, structured assessment protocols and foreign terms that left many in the courtroom looking exasperated. Even the defendants looked puzzled. Koehler's risk-assessment of each young man, put them in a category or stage, between low, low to medium, medium to high, and high, all stages of risk and radicalization.
But defense attorneys raised concerns about his methodology, and his opinions. JaneAnne Murray, who represents Hamza Ahmed, complained that Koehler's interview with her client was over a Skype call that kept failing.
She questioned why Koehler left out a lot of information about her client in his report, including a personal letter where he said he was "filled with remorse and truly wanted to make amends," but also that he wanted to once again "hold and hug his parents and siblings."
After the hearings, defense attorney Kenneth Udoibok, who represents Adnan Farah, said he was pleased with Koehler's evaluation of his client.
"What is meaningful to me is the fact that he recommends counseling, recommends reduced prison time, and recommends a halfway house," Udoibok said. "That tells me that my client, as he said, is at a turning point, and with some counseling, he becomes mainstream."
But Deqa Hussein, mother of defendant Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame, wasn't happy. Koehler assessed that her son was high risk, meaning he hasn't shown any signs of distancing and disengagement from extremist ideology.
"He met me only 15 minutes, he cannot analyze only 15 minutes, the background of my family. My son, someone brainwashed him. He pled guilty. He said sorry," she said. "But the way he put high risk. I did not like it."
However, she did like what Judge Davis told Koehler at the end of the hearings. He said: "I don't have to believe anything you say. We are finding our way dealing with these tough issues. And even the outside counseling that you do, not connected to any court system, it would be accurate to say that the fail rate is great."
Koehler replied: "That is correct."