Key question in MN terror case: Can the radicalized be rehabilitated?

Federal prosecutors allege Abdullahi Yusuf tried to fly to the Middle East last spring to join ISIS. He was intercepted and later charged with conspiring to aid a terror group.

The terror charge typically would have kept Yusuf in jail, pending trial. That's what prosecutors wanted.

Judge Michael Davis
Judge Michael Davis.
Curtis Gilbert / MPR News 2009

Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, however, released the Inver Grove Heights college student to a halfway house. There, Yusuf will be monitored but he'll also receive counseling from a Twin Cities nonprofit that hopes, eventually, to reintegrate him back into society.

The judge's decision represents a very big bet on Yusuf, 18. It's also drawn the attention of counterterrorism experts around the country who are struggling to respond to Islamic State recruitment inside the United States. At its heart is a basic question: Can radicalized Americans be pulled back from the call of terror and returned to their communities?

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Yusuf might be an ideal test case.

"It's extraordinary. I've never seen anything like it in the United States before," said John Horgan, a professor at University of Massachusetts Lowell and a leading scholar on de-radicalization efforts.

Horgan says most U.S. counterterrorism officials agree they can't kill, capture and bomb their way out of the problem of overseas terror recruitment but there's little political appetite for trying new things since getting it wrong carries such a huge risk.

"Most people would probably say, 'Just lock them up. Why are we even thinking of reintegration?' And I think that's why this focus on this case in Minneapolis is electric," Horgan said. "We're all very curious to know what happens."

If Davis approves the pre-trial plan, Yusuf might be able to one day re-enroll in college, coach basketball and mentor other teens. He'd also join a peer group of young Somali-Americans who can talk about the challenges of straddling two cultures.

The judge "understands Mr. Yusuf is closer to being a naive young person than someone who is already engaged in something that might be a threat to our community or people halfway around the world," said Mary McKinley, who runs the group Heartland Democracy and is working on a plan to reintegrate Yusuf.

U.S. intelligence agencies told Congress this week that as many as 150 Americans have tried to or have succeeded in traveling to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS and other groups. Last fall, the FBI confirmed that about 15 people from the Twin Cities had gone to join ISIS.

U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger spoke during a Somali community meeting on stopping terror recruits on Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, at the Brian Coyle Center in Minneapolis.
Renee Jones Schneider / The Star Tribune via AP

U.S. Attorney Andy Luger heads to Washington next week to unveil his plan: programs, mentoring, job counseling. In other words, providing hope to at-risk youth so that terrorism never becomes a temptation.

Federal authorities say they stopped four more young men from the Twin Cities from leaving as recently as November.

Hamza Ahmed and three friends took a bus to New York, where they tried to catch planes to Turkey. The government believes Ahmed was trying to join ISIS, and has charged the 19-year-old nursing student with lying to the FBI.

These young men should receive help, not just punishment, said community organizer Mohamud Noor. Restorative justice programs have been able to divert gang members and juvenile delinquents and that same approach should be applied to people like Ahmed, Noor said.

"When he comes out, will he be rehabilitated or will he be the same person?" Noor asked. "He can go to jail. That is what the court system will determine. But are there any processes that we can help this young man to be rehabilitated?"

While rehabilitation efforts are new to the U.S., there are well-known programs in Saudi Arabia. With thousands of Western fighters joining radical groups like ISIS in Iraq and Syria, several European countries are exploring how to treat jaded fighters returning home from battle.

While Horgan supports these efforts, he still counts himself a skeptic. The problem, he says, is there's no concrete evidence that programs meant to de-radicalize people actually work.

Noor says he's working with families to intervene in the lives of young men who are at risk of falling to violent extremist ideology.

Abdifatah Isse
Abdifatah Yusuf Isse.
Photo Courtesy of the Washington County Sheriff's Office

As observers keep close watch on the work to rehabilitate Abdullahi Yusuf, one of the first Minnesotans to join the extremist group al-Shabab in Somalia has just completed his prison sentence. Abdifatah Isse faces possible deportation and has his first hearing before an immigration judge Thursday. If Isse is allowed to remain in the U.S. he'll be under supervised release for the next 20 years.

Horgan, the UMass professor, said the federal government should try to tap the potential of repentant former terrorists who can speak out against the narrative peddled by recruiters. Men who have become disillusioned with violent extremism could help sway others from making the same mistakes, he said.

"It's something we don't exploit well enough, and there's no place for it in current counterterrorism strategy within the United States," Horgan said. "And that's a huge mistake."