Can men in MN ISIS case be reformed? Expert's views to shape sentences

Skype session with Daniel Koehler
U.S. District Judge Michael J. Davis (not in photo) connected the media via Skype with Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies, during a meeting at the U.S. District Court in Minneapolis on March 2, 2016.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

Court records and indictments revealed how young Minnesota men were radicalized into trying to join ISIS. Tuesday, a judge opens two days of testimony on whether those men can be rehabilitated.

German deradicalization expert Daniel Koehler, brought into the case earlier this year, will take the stand in Minneapolis to discuss his views and findings on whether the Minnesota men can be reformed.

The hearings are unprecedented for a terrorism case in the United States. They could have a significant influence in the November sentencing of six men who pleaded guilty to trying to join the terror group and did not stand trial. They face anywhere from probation to lengthy prison time.

Koehler visited the men last spring at the request of Judge Michael Davis. His recommendations included mentoring and counseling for at least for some of the defendants, according to briefs filed by their attorneys, although the specific recommendations have not been made public.

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His work in Germany has focused mostly on neo-Nazis. But he's increasingly turned his attention to jihadist deradicalization. The researcher is likely to face tough questions from both defense attorneys and prosecutors in the Minnesota ISIS case.

"The parties are really going to work to understand whether or not they believe his findings are credible," said Anders Folk, a former assistant U.S. attorney who helped bring charges against men involved with the terror group al-Shabab in Somalia.

The judge, Folk added, faces a difficult challenge when determining how much weight to give his expert's findings.

"Judge Davis has heard more evidence live [at trial] than this expert has, so he will undoubtedly have reached some of his own conclusions," Folk said. "He's going to have to weigh what he's seen or heard against what this expert finds, which may or may not be consistent with what came out of trial."

Friends and family of the defendants are hoping Koehler's findings help bring leniency, but that might be unpopular in the current climate.

One who pleaded guilty is 21-year-old Zacharia Abdurahman. His sister, Ikraan, says there's more to her eldest brother than what's been in the public eye.

"I want Judge Davis to know Zacharia is not just a felon. He's my brother, he's my support system. He's someone I've always looked up to," she said. "There's this void in our house and in my heart that only Zacharia can fill."

The judge does have a lot of discretion in sentencing, but he must consider a number of factors. That includes federal guidelines and whether the defendants provided substantial assistance to the government by cooperating with the investigation. A review of similar ISIS-related cases around the country by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minneapolis found most of the defendants were sentenced to the maximum penalty of 15 years.

In an order filed in court Monday, Davis wrote that the information provided by Koehler would be "one of many factors" he considers when determining sentences.

Ikraan Abdurahman said she wishes any prison sentence Zacharia gets will be short and that her brother will be able to rejoin the community soon.

"I wish he was here sitting here with me," she said during a recent Minneapolis basketball tournament to raise money and show support for all the nine men who've been found guilty or who have pleaded guilty to conspiring to join ISIS.

"I wish we can go back to school together. That we can travel the world together, that we can be part of one family again, that we can go horseback riding like we did, that we can go camping like we did, sledding like we did — all these day-to-day seasonal activities that you don't really think are huge parts of your life until they're gone."

To some of the basketball players here, the defendants were once role models and big-brother types. At one point, the group paused from playing to watch an emotional video that stitched together audio recordings from the men in jail, including Guled Omar, one of three young men convicted in June.

"Today, I'm a smarter and stronger young man than I was before. I hope to come home, back to all of you, back to my family soon, insha'Allah, I will see all of you," Omar said, adding, "I also want to let you know you have to take advantage of your life, to make smart decisions. Always make start decisions ... and always know for every action you take, there's a consequence behind it."

Make sure to hug and kiss your moms and siblings, he added. The gym of once-rambunctious boys fell silent. A few wiped away tears.

MPR News reporter Doualy Xaykaothao contributed to this report.