Next week, an expert will take the stand in a federal courtroom in Minneapolis and take us inside the minds of six Minnesotans who have admitted to trying to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State. But before he offers his much-anticipated testimony, he gave 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS a preview of his assessments of those defendants.
Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies, is playing a pivotal role in the fate of the would-be jihadis at the center of the high-profile terrorism conspiracy case in Minnesota. On Tuesday and Wednesday, he will testify regarding the de-radicalization assessments he conducted on six defendants.
In an interview with 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS, Koehler said that he believes at least one of the defendants - and maybe more - would still pose a risk to the public if they were released from jail today.
The six young Somali Minnesotans - Zacharia Abdurahman, Hamza Ahmed, Adnan Farah, Hanad Musse, Abdirizak Warsame, and Abdullahi Yusuf - have all previously admitted to a judge that they tried to join ISIS. They each face up to 15 years in prison, and a crucial question hangs over them: Will they pose a threat when they are eventually - inevitably - released?
Koehler seeks to help answer that question.
"My only goal, my task, my position in this, is to understand why these persons came to the point that they were willing to go and become a member of ISIL," Koehler said, using another term for the terror group ISIS.
Koehler specializes in reversing radical ideologies. He leads a nonprofit institute in Germany, and in the past, has worked with neo-Nazis. Now, he's increasingly focused on pulling ISIS supporters out of the terror group's orbit and was brought in to work on the Minnesota terrorism case by Judge Michael Davis.
In a first-of-its-kind de-radicalization effort in the U.S., Koehler assessed the six Minnesota defendants this spring.
"The degree of involvement for these young men differs strongly. So there are some who were more involved than others, more committed than others," Koehler said.
And while Koehler spent only about 90 minutes with each defendant, he insists he was thorough.
"I study every piece of information I can get - interviews with the person themselves, their family members, their friends, persons of interest who have had any influence or saw anything about the radicalization process," Koehler said.
And he said he believes at least one defendant still poses a threat to the public.
"Let me say, there are individuals in that interview sample who I regard as still being at medium-to-high risk," Koehler said.
Koehler's ultimate goal is to eliminate that risk because he said he believes lengthy prison sentences alone will not end the extremist threat.
"Releasing them after 10, 15, or 20 years in a U.S. prison, without any form of counseling, without any form of intervention or assessment, is a grave risk. It's absolutely dangerous," Koehler said.
Koehler also said he believes one of the keys to combating violent extremism is to have former recruits speak out against such ideologies after they have been de-radicalized - in other words, having one of the Minnesota defendants eventually help prevent other young Minnesotans from heeding the call to join ISIS.
Koehler did not assess the three other conspirators in the same terrorism conspiracy case - Abdirahman Daud, Mohamed Farah and Guled Omar - who were convicted by a jury in June. They were assessed separately by Minnesota-based staff who were trained by Koehler.
All nine defendants are expected to be sentenced in November.
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