Can we reverse radicalization with counselling

PBS Newshour/November

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: trying to reverse radicalization and terrorism in the U.S.

Miles O’Brien looks at how experts in the field of clinical psychology are tackling this, as part of our weekly story on the Leading Edge of science.

MILES O’BRIEN: In a federal courtroom in Minneapolis, they are facing the threat of homegrown terrorism in a manner that has never been tried before in this country. It is a bold experiment in criminal justice and clinical psychology. The question? Can aggressive counseling bring someone back from the brink of radicalization?

MANNY ATWAL, Federal Defender: What we have started here is revolutionary. I think it’s great.

MILES O’BRIEN: Manny Atwal is a federal public defender representing 20-year-old Abdullahi Yusuf. He is one of eight first-generation Somali Americans, all in their teens or early 20s, convicted in May of plotting to go to Syria and fight for the Islamic State.

MANNY ATWAL: I know we punish juveniles. I get that, and I understand that. And I know we punish young adults, and I get that and understand that. But, at the same time, to say let’s just lock them up for a lifetime is not the right solution.

MILES O’BRIEN: While he was in jail awaiting sentencing, Abdullahi Yusuf became the nation’s first convicted terrorist to undergo terrorism rehabilitation. He has two mentors who counsel him regularly and a wide-ranging reading list.

MANNY ATWAL: He will have like a week to read this, write up a book report and then discuss it with us.

MILES O’BRIEN: So, it’s a real assignment for him?


Learning American civics, learning about American culture, learning about the East and West just — it just opened up his eyes. And that, I think, is the disengagement that I speak of, to try and get these kids to disengage from some of their thinking that’s been put in their heads, and to get them back to be good citizens that they were before this all happened.

MILES O’BRIEN: It appears the effort might have held sway with the judge. Yusuf, who also testified against his friends, was sentenced to time served. Most of the others received long prison terms. The case of these men is one chapter in a long, sad story.

CHIEF JUDGE JOHN TUNHEIM, District of Minnesota: Minnesota has the greatest number of terrorism prosecutions of any of the federal districts in the United States.

MILES O’BRIEN: John Tunheim is the chief federal judge for the District of Minnesota, home to the largest Somali American community in the U.S.

He watched from the bench as a tragic exodus began in 2007; 23 young Somali Americans from Minnesota joined the ranks of the al-Qaida-linked Al-Shabaab terror group as it tried to topple the government of Somalia. More recently, the call to arms has come from the Islamic State.

For judges trying to mete out fair sentences, it is uncharted territory. There are no guidelines.

CHIEF JUDGE JOHN TUNHEIM: They’re different from a bank robber or someone who sells drugs. I mean, we understand those cases. We have had many of those cases in our courts. We haven’t had many terrorism cases. We need to understand them. We need to make sure that we can keep them, to the best effort that we possibly can, from becoming terrorists again.

MILES O’BRIEN: For some expert advice, they turned to this man in Stuttgart, Germany.

DANIEL KOEHLER, German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies: The Minneapolis group was a by-the-book radicalization process. What they did was, they actually followed ISIL’s own recruitment handbook step-by-step.

MILES O’BRIEN: Daniel Koehler is one of a small cohort of experts in the world in the emerging field of de-radicalization. The judge hearing the cases in Minnesota is factoring Koehler’s guidance into sentencing.

DANIEL KOEHLER: When you start working with a person, the first question is, is that person willing to change? Is he or she actually asking for help to leave the movement? Is there any cognitive opening?

It’s like peeling an onion. Layer by layer, you try to work yourself to the core and offer something that gets more and more attractive to that person, to compete with a narrative of groups like ISIL or al-Qaida.

MILES O’BRIEN: Koehler has de-radicalized neo-Nazis for years, and he says the approach is much the same, but the enticement to religious extremism is even more compelling.

ARIE KRUGLANSKI, University of Maryland: It’s the opportunity to become a hero, to become a martyr, to serve a cause greater than your own.

MILES O’BRIEN: Psychologist Arie Kruglanski says terrorists are seeking that and certainty, clear-cut answers in a chaotic world. The psychological term is cognitive closure.

ARIE KRUGLANSKI: The need for cognitive closure is the need for certainty and the need to be confident about a topic, the need to know for sure.

MILES O’BRIEN: Kruglanski and his team have authored reams of research on the Sri Lankan terror group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Tamil Tigers.

He discovered a clear link between feelings of self-worth and the desire to join a group.

ARIE KRUGLANSKI: You feel that you’re humiliated, that you’re insignificant, you do not matter. And that predisposes people to listen to ideologies that tell you, I will tell you how you’re going to matter. You’re going to matter — and this is in the case of ISIS and radicalization — you’re going to matter by joining the fight.

MILES O’BRIEN: Kruglanski has tested this theory with a simple experiment, which he replicated for us.

Our subjects, four University of Maryland undergraduates.

Graduate student Marina Chernikova presided over the experiment.

MARINA CHERNIKOVA: The purpose of this experiment is to provide — is to explore the evolutionary hunting hypothesis.

MILES O’BRIEN: They all played a simple video game called the Duck Hunt. The game was set to be impossibly hard for two of them, and incredibly easy for the other two.

They were told a score of 100 or more predicts all kinds of success in life.

MARINA CHERNIKOVA: But scores lower than 100 strongly predict failure. So you’re going to be playing that game today.

MILES O’BRIEN: Ben Weinberg had it easy. He was knocking ducks out of the sky right and left, and waltzed to the 100-point threshold. But when it was Mara Lins’ turn in the hot seat, there were no sitting ducks, not even close.

MARA LINS, University of Maryland: I felt really frustrated, because the duck was just going so fast, I couldn’t ever really click on it that well, and the scores just kept going more and more down. So, it made me really uncomfortable, actually.

MILES O’BRIEN: They took a survey that included two dozen questions designed to assess people’s need for support from a group.

ARIE KRUGLANSKI: So, this person seems to be scoring very high on interdependence. Do you know what condition was he in?

MARINA CHERNIKOVA: Yes, this one was in the failure condition.

ARIE KRUGLANSKI: In the failure condition. OK. That’s very interesting.

If you’re successful, you feel relatively independent of your group. You can have it on your own. You do not need the group. You do not need other people. But when you feel humiliated and weakened in a sense of failure, that’s the circumstances that lead you to attach to the group, to the larger entity that would empower you and tell you how to feel significant by doing what the group requires you to do.

MILES O’BRIEN: The Minnesota men were straddling two cultures, not sure where they belonged, and they were incessantly watching ISIS recruitment videos.

MANNY ATWAL: I don’t mean to sound so callous about it, but it looked cool to them. I don’t think, personally, these kids ever thought through it, I’m going to be actually picking up a gun and killing people.

MILES O’BRIEN: Ayan Farah runs a small restaurant in a mall that caters to the Somali community. Her son Adnan is one of the convicted terrorists. He got a 10-year sentence. She does not believe prison is warranted.

AYAN FARAH, Mother of Convicted Terrorist: He’s a teenage. Teenage? He is a teenage. Always teenage is a teenage.

MILES O’BRIEN: But does de-radicalization work? Arie Kruglanski has data that shows it does.

In Sri Lanka, he studied the Tamil Tigers at different times during their first year home after a long civil war. Some were exposed to a full de-radicalization program. Others were not.

ARIE KRUGLANSKI: We found a significant decline in violence in the experimental group that received the treatment, as compared to the control group that received only minimal treatment.

Human minds, human psyches are malleable. They are pliable. In the same way as a person gets radicalized, it changes from a mainstream kind of person to a fringe kind of person, they can be brought back, and also they can be re-radicalized.

MILES O’BRIEN: The experiment may soon have some other points of data, thanks some judges in Minnesota who are leaning forward, looking for a better solution.

CHIEF JUDGE JOHN TUNHEIM: While people may be very happy to see someone put away for many, many years, if they’re accused of being a terrorist, that just is not feasible to think that warehousing these people without helping them at all is doing anyone any good.

MILES O’BRIEN: The science suggests de-radicalization is possible, but is this country ready to embrace the approach en masse? The jury is still out on that.

Miles O’Brien, the “PBS NewsHour,” Minneapolis.

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