Judge orders study of terror defendants before sentencing

U.S. District Judge Michael J. Davis
U.S. District Judge Michael J. Davis
Courtney Perry for MPR News

Updated: 5:42 p.m. | Posted: 11:02 a.m.

A federal judge presiding over the cases of several men accused of plotting to join the terror group ISIS is launching the first steps of a de-radicalization program for four men who pleaded guilty.

Abdullahi Yusuf, Hanad Musse, Zacharia Abdurahman and Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame will be placed in an intervention study program led by the U.S. Probation Office for the District of Minnesota, which will contract with the German Institute on Radicalization and De‐radicalization Studies.

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U.S. District Judge Michael J. Davis flew to Germany in December to meet with Daniel Koehler, director of the institute, who will carry out the individual risk assessments and provide a written report about his findings and recommendations to the court.

"We're setting up the first program in the country. And it's baby steps. And you can see — we tried to find the best expert possible to help us," Davis said. "As you know these cases go on for a long period of time and we can do a lot while they are sitting in jail."

Koehler, who will visit Minnesota in April, will evaluate the four defendants who pleaded guilty and also train a team from the U.S. Probation Office.

The "Terrorism Disengagement and Deradicalization Program" will identify the individual driving factors of radicalization, according to court documents filed Wednesday morning.

"The assessment should include any necessary interviews with the defendant, family members, friends, teachers, and/or agents of the government and review of appropriate documentation and reports," the document said.

The German Institute on Radicalization and De‐radicalization Studies will come up with a "recommended disengagement and de‐radicalization intervention program tailored to the individual defendant's circumstances and underlying radicalization factors."

In a briefing with reporters, Davis said recommendations and assessments from the study are intended to help him make sentencing decisions as he assesses whether an individual is open to treatment. The program is not an alternative to incarceration.

"It's very important that the court has as much information as possible dealing with this" so that "I don't hand out a sentence that's inappropriate," Davis said.

He said the program could also help with the evaluation of defendants who have already served time, such as those who pleaded guilty years ago to supporting the Somalia-based terror group al-Shabab, as they transition back into the community.

The four men will be transported from jail to participate in the study.

Five other Twin Cities men, also arrested over suspicion of going to Syria to join ISIS, are expected to go to trial in May, and five fighters who left Minnesota for the Middle East are believed dead.

Counterterrorism experts around the country are trying to figure out whether people can be pulled back from the call of terror and returned safely to their communities. Many have been paying attention to the unfolding story in Minneapolis.

It started in February 2015, when U.S. District Judge Michael J. Davis allowed Abdullahi Yusuf, the first ISIS defendant in the state, to be sent to a halfway house— where he was to receive counseling — rather than jail pending trial. Yusuf's attorneys had argued for a softer approach in hopes that he could be reintegrated into society. Weeks later, Yusuf pled guilty to supporting the terror group.

But that experiment had a hitch. Months later, Yusuf was sent back to jail after a box cutter was found in his room at the halfway house.

Davis emphasized that it's up to the four men to decide whether they want to participate in the program or not.

Warsame's attorney, Robert Sicoli, said he found out about Davis's program Wednesday morning and he will first have a look at it before he makes a decision.

"If we go ahead with the program," he said, "I may at some point be asking the court to release Mr. Warsame under certain conditions because I really don't think he is a threat to anybody."

Koehler said he has previously been approached by many parents in Europe whose children joined terrorist groups. He said he counseled Muslim families whose kids were also radicalized.

Some families detect changes in their children, he said, but most of them don't know what to do and in many cases they act in a counterproductive way as they try to protect their children.

"Organizations like the Islamic State and others use a very sophisticated psychological approach to recruitment and radicalizations," he said. "So they would actually try to provoke conflicts and arguments within the family."

"These families are scared," Koehler added. "They fear they are losing their sons and daughters."

There's no guarantee that interventions programs will work, Koehler said, and the only thing he can do is assess the four defendants and "explain what I think is the reasons for the radicalizations and what I think could work in terms of de-radicalizations."

"Luckily, I can pass that it on to judge Davis to work out what to do with it," he said.

Davis said this new program is different from the Countering Violent Terrorism (CVE) program launched by the U.S. Justice Department in 2014 in Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Boston. Some Minnesota Muslims have questioned the CVE's intent and raised concerns that it's simply a way to gather intelligence.

The CVE program is locally known as Building Community Resilience and is spearheaded by the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Andrew Luger, who said in a statement that he supports the court's efforts.

"I am fully supportive of the court's new initiative to rehabilitate those who have pled guilty to terrorism related crimes," U.S. Attorney Andrew M. Luger said. "Our office looks forward to working with the community, the families of the defendants and experts to assist in ending terror recruiting in Minnesota. This program is one important step to address terror recruiting by assisting those who want to reject the call of ISIL."