Radicalization expert testifies in Minneapolis case

KARE NBC News, Minnesota/September21, 2016

By John Croman

Minneapolis -- A German expert on radicalization spent Tuesday in U.S. District Court in explaining his risk assessments of six young Somali American men from Minnesota who pled guilty earlier this year to plotting to join ISIL.

Daniel Koehler, who heads the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies, was asked by U.S. District Judge Michael Davis to evaluate the men and assess how likely they are to become active in the movement once they are released.

The six men -- Abdullahi Yusuf, Zacharia Abdurahman, Hanad Musse, Abdirizak Warsame, Adnan Farah and Hamza Ahmed -- each face up to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty last spring to plotting to join the Islamic State In Iraq and Levant, or ISIL.

Judge Davis has said that Koehler's report is one of the factors he'll weigh. He'll also receive a report from federal prosecutors about how much each defendant cooperated with the larger investigation, which will include information that will not be disclosed to the public.

Koehler spent much of him time on the witness stand Tuesday defending his findings during questioning from defense attorneys and prosecutors.

He said all cases vary, but a general rule of thumb is that it requires three times more time de-radicalize someone who has joined the cause. So, for example, if someone was radicalized over the period of one year it would take three years to completely break the bonds.

Koehler said the odds of successful reintegration are based in large part on how receptive the larger community is, and what types of support is available, in terms of counseling, therapy and mentoring. Many of those who've been involved with ISIL return to their homelands suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorders.

At one point, Koehler was asked to describe the different types of de-radicalization programs available in Germany. Judge Davis interjected, "But we don't have those programs in Minnesota or America, so we can talk about theories, but it has nothing to do with this situation."

The expert said he looks for "cognitive openings" which are opportunities for former recruits to see a broader world perspective that's more inclusive of other cultures and shows an understanding of the harm of terroristic acts. He also seeks evidence of "self reflection" by the defendants, and whether they can put their thoughts in their own words.

Koehler described what he called the "radicalization recipe" -- life experiences that cause a person to be alienated from the mainstream culture in a society, which can include being a victim of racism or bullying, or lacking employment or an education.

So there's an element of rebellion and in some cases revenge. The recipe also includes people who have a strong sense of trying to right wrongs and help those who are victims of injustice.

But he said it's rare for a true radical jihadist to be radicalized solely through online sources, because becoming part of a group, or a cadre of fighters is also important. It gives them a sense of belonging to a group -- an "elite warrior caste." 

And recruiters focus many efforts on "building a brigade" to fight, either physically or through financial support. Some of the defendants had sought out imams or mosques aligned with the brand of Salafi Islam that is embraced by ISIL.

Some of the recruits develop a sense of superior morality over non-Muslims and other sects of Muslims, and will come to believe that Muslim lives are more valuable than others.

Koehler said many of those who are radicalized experience sudden changes of behavior. For instance, they stop shaking hands with women and stop looking them in the eyes. They may suddenly stop listening to western music, which is considered blasphemy to those in the movement.

In fact, during his assessment of whether a radicalized person is truly on the road to reform, he'll look for "role residuals" -- signs of those beliefs or behaviors persisting even after a person has expressed remorse.

One of the defendants had returned to his family life, but still hadn't gone back to listening to music that had once been important to him. Others will say what they think Koehler wants to hear, but behave differently.

In one case the defendant told Koehler he had decided violence is not the right solution for battling the Assad Regime in Syria, and he had stopped watching ISIL videos online.

The defendant said he thought he could channel his outrage instead through humanitarian aid efforts to help the refugees and those still trapped in the civil war zone.

But later the same defendant was still watching ISIL videos, and was caught telling a friend he still wants to engage in combat in Syria.

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