Minneapolis — The assessments from a German terror expert for six convicted Minnesota terror defendants are being watched carefully by top officials across the country.
In a first-of-its-kind experiment in the United States, Federal Judge Michael Davis hired terror expert Daniel Koehler to make de-radicalization assessments and create individualized programs for the six defendants.
All six pleaded guilty to plotting to travel overseas and join ISIS.
WCCO is one of only a few news organizations who interviewed both Koehler and Minnesota Chief Federal Probation Office Kevin Lowry about what some are calling a pioneering effort to stop the spread of terror recruiting.
“It is possible [to de-radicalize someone], not with each and every one,” Koehler said.
He has performed 200 de-radicalization assessments in Europe on both radical jihadist and neo-Nazis.
“I believe that people can correct these errors and can reform and reintegrate,” Koehler said.
But the de-radicalization process Koehler detailed in two days of testimony is rigorous, requiring specialized intensive counseling, education and perhaps most importantly a willing defendant
“The question is really are they lying to me? Are they on their own disclosing information? Are they comprehensive?” Koehler said.
It was the case of ten Minnesota terror suspects charged in 2014 and in 2015 that convinced federal authorities a new approach was needed.
The Twin Cities men were all in their teens or early twenties, many enrolled in college and none with criminal records.
“These cases were different than any other type of cases we had seen,” Lowry said.
He says one concern is that just throwing young terror recruits in prison could create a larger threat.
“They go into prison, they radicalize others, they become more radicalized,” Lowry said. “Some of those folks may get out sooner than these folks and carry out lone wolf terrorist acts.”
Koehler detailed in court Wednesday why, in his view, defendant Hanad Musse was at high risk for re-offending. Koehler testified that Musse lied in the interview, saying he was the only one involved in the plot to join ISIS.
Musse in fact was part of a larger group of ten Twin Cities men who were charged in 2014 and 2015 with trying to travel overseas and join ISIS.
Musse and defendant Abdirizak Warsame were the only two defendants that Koehler said were at a high risk for reoffending. Warsame’s mother, Deqa Warsame, was critical of Koehler’s evaluation
“My son said someone brainwash him, he pled guilty, he said he’s sorry. But the way he put high risk, I did not like it,” Warsame said.
But the attorney for defendant Adnan Farah praised both Koehler’s protocols and his recommendations, that include intensive de-radicalization education and counseling.
Koehler rated Adnan Farah as medium-to-high risk of re-offending. Farah’s case was complicated by the fact that his brother, Mohamed Farah, went to trial in the case and was one of the three found guilty last June.
“It’s very hard, it’s very hard situation, so … one year and six months,” said Ayan Farah, the Farah brothers’ mother.
Koehler’s risk assessment of Farah included both counseling and a recommendation for a shorter sentence than the 15-year maximum, including serving some of his time in a halfway house.
Koehler says there is what he calls leakage or warning signs often missed by family and friends in 95 percent of cases.
He says the individuals start talking openly about radical ideas, change friends, and there are changes in their social media postings.
Koehler says he found immediate similarities in the Minnesota cases and the cases he has worked on in Europe.
“I was astonished actually,” Koehler said.
But U.S. prisons have no de-radicalization programs in place, unlike European countries.
“That is a huge concern because obviously my recommendations are based on the fact that there is someone available who can execute these recommendations, and the U.S. is currently about 16 to 20 years behind,” Koehler said.
He has begun training federal probation officers in Minnesota on how to set up de-radicalization programs.
Judge Davis stressed that Koehler’s evaluations and treatment recommendations will not be the only factors in determining the sentences he gives out in November.
The six men face a maximum of 15 years in prison. Lowry would not say how much the courts are paying Koehler, which he says is confidential information.