Will a European de-radicalization approach work in at-risk U.S. cities?

The Washington Post/September 18, 2016

By Rick Noack

The number of Islamic State supporters in Minnesota has worried investigators for months, prompting suspicions that a stabbing Saturday in which eight people were injured might be related to terrorism.

Although the details about the stabbing incident in St. Cloud are hazy, fears of a terrorism connection mounted Sunday when the militant-linked news agency Amaq claimed that the unnamed attacker had been a "soldier of the Islamic State."

That phrase has been used in several attacks in recent months, including in Nice, France, where a man killed more than 80 people in a truck attack in July. The St. Cloud Police Department said the attacker in Minnesota referred to Allah at least once during the stabbing before he was shot.

Daniel Koehler, a German de-radicalization expert, has worked with at-risk individuals and their families for years in Europe, particularly in Germany and the Netherlands. He also travels frequently to Minnesota, where he helps assess terrorism suspects and has contributed to plans to set up counterradicalization programs. A 2015 report by the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security singled out Minnesota as having a particularly large number of Islamic State sympathizers.

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Koehler's proposals, aimed at counseling prisoners convicted of terrorism-related crimes and supporting individuals who might be on a path toward committing such crimes, are based mainly on European programs that have been considered successes. He says the underlying factors that drive radicalization here are similar to those that have been observed in Europe.

WorldViews spoke to Koehler about what connects Islamic State supporters in North America with other radicalized groups and individuals in Europe,and about what can be done to counter that threat. The interview was conducted shortly before the Saturday stabbing.

Some of the answers have been reproduced below. They have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Many European nations offer "de-radicalization" schemes to convicted terrorism suspects who are in prison. Special counseling sessions are supposed to draw them away from jihadist ideology. Could de-radicalization programs also work in North America?

What I have seen being done here in Minnesota is by far the most advanced in North America. Most prisons do not offer terrorism suspects any special counseling, which makes them prone to conduct crimes once they are released. In Minnesota, much of that is already being experimented with. I would argue the U.S. needs to offer much more support to those prisoners to reduce the risks they may pose.

You have worked with radicalized individuals both in Europe and in Minnesota. Are there any similarities between the radicalization of young men and women in Europe and in North America?

We increasingly observe a common pattern of sympathizers who develop a collective identity. That identity is fueled by propaganda from the outside, for instance, on the Internet as well as by Salafi preachers. However, there is also an internal dynamic that is crucial. Being members of a group of friends in which current affairs and Islamist ideology are being discussed can have a strong impact on young men and women.

That sounds as if radicalization is more of a social process. There is still a lot of focus on so-called lone wolves who allegedly radicalize online and alone. Are we misled by that perception?

I barely know of any cases without any offline influence. Sympathizers play basketball together. They listen to jihadi music. They go to the mosque together, for instance. Some have called this phenomenon "pop jihadism," which emphasizes that we're faced with a Salafi youth movement that has a growing potential to radicalize young men and women in Europe and North America. Members of that movement produce their own graphics and their own clothes, and they make their own online videos.

Of course, social media also plays a major role — but nearly nobody has so far radicalized without having been influenced by friends or acquaintances, as well. For those young men and women, being on social media is just natural.

Are all of those who participate in what you are describing as an Islamist youth movement in Western countries willing to plan attacks?

So far, many of them have served an important purpose for groups such as the Islamic State [which is also known as ISIS]: Their online propaganda has helped to fuel radicalization across the world. But I fear that at some point, those individuals might reconsider their involvement and be encouraged to go and conduct attacks, as we have already seen. They might themselves feel that posting jihadist content might not be sufficient.

Could the territorial decline of the Islamic State in Syria make sympathizers in the West realize that this ideology is flawed?

Many of them have already noticed this. They might instead shift to other groups, such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. But Islamic State supporters might also interpret recent events in a different light and see their own decline as evidence for the validity of their ideas. They might say that the fact that Russia, the Syrian government and the U.S. united against them is proof of an apocalyptic battle between them and the Islamic State. Taking away ISIS territory might not destroy their ideas. Even the Islamic State has probably realized that, at this stage, it is useless to urge followers to risk the journey to Syria if they can motivate them to conduct low-level terrorist attacks in Western countries.

In Britain, for instance, individuals who are considered to be at risk of radicalizing are referred to counseling. Would this work in the United States?

I'm quite skeptical about that approach: Those individuals have not actually done anything illegal, yet. The fact that they are considered to be on the path toward becoming radical extremists is not sufficient to send them to mandatory counseling sessions. I think what is needed would be a family-based support system for all kinds of extremism — not only Islamist extremism. Participation should be voluntary, and the focus should be to empower families and communities to safeguard their own members.

But haven't families in Europe been particularly helpless amid the recent wave of Islamic State fighters who traveled to Syria? Many mothers said they had to watch their sons leave without being able to intervene.

My experience from working with many of them is that families are looking for help. Most telephone hotlines that were started for concerned families were literally overrun. Back in Germany, I was often contacted by American families who asked me for help — simply because there seemed to be no de-radicalization expert in the U.S. available.

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