Can you turn a terrorist back into a citizen?

A controversial new program aims to reform homegrown ISIS recruits back into normal young Americans

Wired/January 24, 2017

By Brendan I. Koerner

Like most high school seniors, Abdullahi Yusuf tried to avoid hugging his father in view of other teens. But on the morning of May 28, 2014, as he was being dropped off in front of Heritage Academy in southeast Minneapolis, the rail-thin 18-year-old, who went by the nickname Bones, startled his dad with a tender good-bye embrace. Unbeknownst to his father, Yusuf believed he’d never see any member of his family again.

Yusuf snuck out of school after first period and walked two blocks to Dar al-Farooq Como, a plain brick mosque on 17th Avenue. A friend picked him up in a Volkswagen Jetta and took him to a light-rail station. There Yusuf caught a train to the airport: He was set to depart for Turkey that afternoon, with layovers in New York and Moscow. Once he touched down in Istanbul, he planned to head to the city’s famed Blue Mosque and use his iPhone’s MagicJack app to call a phone number that he’d been given by another friend, Abdirahman Daud. Yusuf didn’t know who would answer, but Daud had assured him this person would guide him into Syria and help him become a soldier for the so-called Islamic State, better known in the West as ISIS.

Yusuf was moments away from boarding his flight when he was pulled aside by FBI special agent John Thomas. The agent was part of a surveillance team that had been watching Yusuf for a month, ever since the teen had shown up at the Federal Building in downtown Minneapolis to apply for an expedited passport. During his interview with the passport examiner, Yusuf hadn’t been able to name the hotel where he’d supposedly booked a room or the Istanbul tourist attractions he wished to visit beyond the Blue Mosque. The examiner had reported this fishy behavior to his boss, who had in turn alerted the FBI.

When Agent Thomas told Yusuf that he knew all about his travel plans, the teen reeled off the talking points he’d rehearsed in case he was stopped: He swore he was merely going on vacation and protested that the agent was targeting him because of his Somali heritage and Muslim faith. “I never committed no terrorist crimes that you’re accusing me of,” he snapped. But his outward bravado masked feelings of panic.

Thomas informed Yusuf there was no chance he’d be allowed to fly, so the teen took a taxi home. His mom and dad were waiting for him there: Other FBI agents had just come by to let them know of their son’s attempt to leave the country. Amidst all this, Yusuf managed to post a cryptic note on Twitter: “the weather is hot today.” The phrase was a signal to Daud and the other members of Yusuf’s circle of aspiring jihadis that the law was closing in.

Several months passed with no further word from the FBI, and Yusuf tried to move on with his life: He attended summer school, found a part-time job at Best Buy, and played paintball with his friends. In September, Yusuf’s lawyer sent him an alarming text: Yusuf’s arrest was imminent. He flirted with the notion of fleeing the country but ultimately decided to stay put. When a police car finally pulled him over one late November day, the teenager went quietly.

Yusuf and five of his friends, all young Somali Americans from Minneapolis who’d schemed to fight in Syria, eventually pleaded guilty to trying to join the Islamic State. Yusuf and one of his codefendants, Abdirizak Warsame, went even further, agreeing to testify and help convict Daud and two other members of the group whom the government characterized as the conspiracy’s leaders. (Two additional members actually made it to Syria and were killed fighting for ISIS.) No matter their level of contrition or cooperation, however, the six men who took plea bargains each faced up to 15 years in prison—a standard sentence for an American found guilty of aiding the Islamic State.

But Michael J. Davis, the federal judge who presided over the Minneapolis terrorism cases, was troubled. Some of the defendants appeared to be malleable youths who’d been ensnared by sly recruiting tactics. Yusuf, for example, was first lured into the group during pickup basketball at a mosque. After the games, the men would spend hours watching a YouTube channel called Enter the Truth. The videos, all slick Islamic State productions, focused on the suffering of Syrian children and the moral corruption of the West. Soon enough, Yusuf was wondering whether he should join the group in going to Syria.

As he fielded guilty pleas throughout 2015, Davis thought about how he might offer leniency to the conspiracy’s least culpable members. He could do so only if he knew for sure that the men would never again be tempted by jihadism. To that end, Davis began to research whether there are effective therapies for reforming extremists. He hoped to find a credible way to transform Yusuf and his friends back into the ordinary young men they’d once been. This could spare the youths years behind bars—an act of compassion that would undermine the Islamic State narrative that the West despises its Muslim citizens.

Davis discovered that numerous nations, from Denmark to Indonesia, have developed methods for nudging young men and women back from the extremist brink—a process known as deradicalization. The judge became intent on starting the first laboratory for deradicalization in the US; he just needed to find an expert he could trust, someone with a proven track record of liberating young minds from violent extremism. One name kept coming up—that of 30-year-old researcher Daniel Koeh­ler.

When Tore Bjorgo began to study the neo-Nazi groups of his native Norway in the late 1980s, his fellow scholars of extremism were solely focused on understanding how ordinary kids could morph into racist thugs. “There was this general idea that once a Nazi, always a Nazi,” says Bjørgo, a social scientist who is now a professor at the University of Oslo. “The common perception was that you could prevent people from joining, but once they joined, all was lost.”

But Bjørgo came to believe that his colleagues were mistaken. After interviewing scores of far-right extremists in Scandinavia, he found that the majority of neo-Nazis actually become disillusioned with their lives after a number of years; many of these people have a hard time breaking away from the movement, however, because they fear reprisals, social isolation, or disappointing their friends. In a 1997 book that is often hailed as the founding text of deradicalization, Bjørgo detailed how neo-Nazis can muster the psychological strength to turn their backs on their brutal pasts.

Bjørgo’s ideas were the catalyst for a series of pioneering deradicalization programs throughout Europe, all aimed at far-right extremists who wanted to reinvent themselves. In 2010, one of the most well-known of those programs, the Berlin-based Exit-­Germany, hired Daniel Koeh­ler as an intern. A Fulbright scholar who had studied religion and economics at Princeton, Koeh­ler was preparing to pursue a master’s degree in peace studies from the University of Hamburg. He became a full-time Exit-Germany employee after graduating in 2011.

Koeh­ler’s fascination with neo-Nazis began during his teenage years in the Berlin suburb of Teltow, where skinheads were as much a part of the youth-culture landscape as skaters or punks. “I was always kind of curious about them,” says Koeh­ler, a bespectacled, slightly beefy man whose taste for graphic T-shirts seems at odds with his Teutonic meticulousness. “These were not stupid guys—they went to high school, they made their A Levels. And yet they were highly violent.” His job at Exit-­Germany, which required him to forge close relationships with skinheads, gave him the chance to explore how smart young people can be enticed into devoting themselves to twisted causes.

The start of Koeh­ler’s career coincided with a worldwide proliferation of deradicalization programs aimed at jihadis. In 2012, Koeh­ler became a counselor at one such program in Germany, called Hayat (Arabic for “life”). As he immersed himself in the challenge of figuring out what makes jihadis tick, he also became keen to learn how other deradicalization organizations approach their work. To his dismay, he discovered that many of those ventures lack any kind of scientific rigor. Some, like Saudi Arabia’s government-run counseling program for prison inmates, claim suspiciously high success rates yet don’t permit any outside scrutiny; others are staffed by people who act on intuition rather than in ways validated by data. “The deradicalization field globally is more or less completely free of any working standards, which is insane,” Koeh­ler says. “Many of these counselors, they do things because they feel right, but they can’t explain to you why. They have no training, no handbooks, no anything.” He notes, for example, that counselors often ask local clerics to tell their clients that terrorist groups preach a false version of Islam—a tactic that Koeh­ler suspects is prone to backfire, since extremist recruits are taught that religious leaders in the West are not true Muslims.

Koeh­ler’s frustration with the improvisational nature of many programs inspired him to delve deeper into research on deradicalization: He wanted to use the scientific method to ascertain which techniques yield reliable results and which are just folk cures. In 2014 he founded both the German Institute on Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies and the peer-reviewed Journal for Deradicalization, two enterprises that have allowed him to sift through mountains of case studies to discern the mechanics by which seemingly normal teens and twentysomethings can be coaxed into committing acts of terror.

Koeh­ler’s key finding has been that all extremists, regardless of ideology, develop a sort of tunnel vision as they go through the indoctrination process. An ordinary high school or college student, Koeh­ler argues, has a lot of problems (tricky classes, meddling parents, romantic woes) as well as many potential solutions (study harder, find a job, date someone new). A person who’s journeying down the path toward radicalization, by contrast, sees their problems and solutions each get winnowed down to one—a process that Koeh­ler terms “depluralization.” The solitary problem for these individuals is always that there’s a global conspiracy against their race or religion; the solitary solution to such persecution is violence, with the goal of placing themselves and their group in control of a revamped society.

Koeh­ler sees little point in starting moral or theological arguments with these young people, who are more interested in becoming warriors than debating the finer points of scripture. Instead, he advocates repluralization: the careful reintro­duction of problems and solutions into a radicalized person’s life, so that they can no longer devote all their mental energy to stewing over their paranoia. If an Islamic State sympathizer is intent on emigrating to Syria, for example, Koeh­ler suggests reminding them that they’ll require food, water, and shelter that could otherwise go to Syrian orphans. “So you can say to him, ‘Why not stay here for now and I’ll help you organize a charity run’ or ‘I’ll help you raise awareness in your school or your community.’ Anything that will get that person to really think about different ways to address the problem.”

After that seed is planted, a counselor can move on to engaging a client about the pursuits they once enjoyed before jihadism became their sole passion. If the individual was, for example, a practitioner of tae kwon do, then a meeting can be arranged with a tae kwon do champion who is also a devout Muslim and who can thus speak to the challenge of balancing sports and faith.

In Koeh­ler’s ideal scenario, as a radicalized person is compelled to contemplate more and more run-of-the-mill issues, they lose the fervor that once made them eager to kill. Reaching that point requires substantial resources, however: Koeh­ler believes that each client needs at least four mentors plus an “intervention coordinator” and that full deradicalization can be achieved only after a matter of years, not months.

Koeh­ler’s theories have not been universally embraced by his peers, some of whom feel that he’s too much of an ivory-tower figure—a person who may be great at analyzing papers but, despite his time studying neo-Nazis, lacks enough direct experience with extremists to know how they really think. One veteran of the European deradicalization scene, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to his fear of Germany’s strong defamation laws, says that Koeh­ler’s ambition still far exceeds his wisdom: “There are many people around here that know much more, and more firsthand, about all this than Daniel, to say the least.”

But such criticism may be inspired in part by envy, for Koeh­ler is in high demand these days. In addition to running his research institute from his home in Stuttgart, he has spent much of the past two years as a globe-trotting consultant: He has advised officials in Belgium, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Canada on how to set up deradicalization programs. It’s because of his prominence that Koeh­ler’s name was mentioned so often in the materials that Judge Davis gathered during his hunt for a deradicalization model to emulate in Minnesota.

Davis, a 69-year-old former public defender who’s been on the federal bench since 1994, knew he had to be cautious, for he was certain to catch flak for simply daring to suggest that Islamic State supporters might be worthy of redemption. Due to the Islamic State’s barbarity, the American justice system has been harsh on the 60 people so far who’ve been convicted of either plotting domestic attacks in the group’s name or attempting to reach ISIS-controlled territory. Even when defendants have suffered from mental health issues or were nabbed with the assistance of shady informants, severe sentences have been the norm. The story of Jaelyn Young, a former Mississippi State University chemistry student, is typical: In August, the 20-year-old was sentenced to 12 years in prison for trying to become an Islamic State medic in Syria, even though she made it only as far as the Columbus, Mississippi, airport and had no prior criminal history. Davis was aware that if he was going to take a political risk by offering leniency to the young Somalis in his court, he’d need to present deradicalization as something rooted in evidence, not just optimism.

In October of 2015, Davis sent his chief probation officer, Kevin Lowry, to the UK and Germany to meet with a slew of prospective deradicalization partners. Based on Lowry’s glowing review of his chat with Koeh­ler, the judge paid his own way to Berlin that December so he could hear Koeh­ler describe his methodology in person. The two men met for burgers at Alex, a modish gastropub beneath the city’s landmark television tower. By the time their plates were cleared, Davis was convinced that Koeh­ler had the expertise and temperament to tackle the delicate project he had in mind: the creation of the Terrorism Disengagement and Deradicalization Program, the first government initiative of its kind in the US.

When the program was announced in March 2016, its mission statement was frank about the perils it means to address: “Untreated radicalized individuals will infect communities and continue to seek opportunities to harm others and martyr themselves.” Less than two months later, Koeh­ler traveled to Minneapolis to interview Abdullahi Yusuf and several of his codefen­dants at length so he could assess each man’s potential to be rehabilitated. Davis vowed to give the German’s recommendations great weight as he pondered what sentences to hand down.

The April conversations between Koeh­ler and the Minneapolis defendants started awkwardly; there was no getting around the obvious strangeness of a white German trying to coax a Somali American teen into revealing his most intimate thoughts. But thanks to his experience plumbing the psyches of neo-­Nazis, Koeh­ler is adept at getting strangers to open up about painful moments from their past. The details he gleans from these conversations allow him to identify “cognitive openings”—small yet telling indications that an extremist really wants to change and will therefore listen to a counselor’s guidance.

Of all the personal stories that Koeh­ler heard in Minneapolis, the one he found most revealing was Yusuf’s, whose brief life has been filled with alienation and hardship.

Yusuf was born in a Kenyan refugee camp, where he vaguely remembers having his tonsils removed without any anesthesia or painkillers. When he was 3 years old, he and his pregnant mother were permitted to move to Minnesota; his father, who did not receive a visa at that time, wasn’t able to join them for another five years. The Yusufs initially lived with 16 relatives in a single-family home, then moved to a one-bedroom apartment in a crime-ridden section of north Minneapolis. Because he was Somali, Yusuf was routinely taunted by both white and black classmates at public schools. But he wasn’t shy about fighting back; as a second grader, he once came to blows with a fellow student who’d torn the hijab off a Somali girl’s head.

Desperate for a sense of belonging as he became a teen, Yusuf fell in with a crew of kids who entertained themselves by stealing cars and smoking marijuana, often during school hours; his grades suffered. But he eventually got his schoolwork back on track after his father, a stern and hardworking truck driver, moved the family to a better neighborhood and challenged Yusuf to earn his diploma.

In September 2013, Yusuf’s history teacher assigned him to give a presentation on Syria. Up until that point, he knew little about the civil war that has engulfed the country. He was outraged to learn of the Syrian government’s atrocities against civilians and children. It was right around this time that Yusuf was invited to a local mosque to participate in basketball games—the ones that were followed by screenings of jihadist videos. The men at the mosque claimed that the Islamic State was primarily interested in protecting Syrian innocents, which meant that Yusuf would be doing sacred work if he took up arms for such a noble group.

Koeh­ler describes Yusuf’s radicalization process as “by the book.” “These teenagers, they are intrigued by the promise that they will immediately start to change society and live out their ideals,” he says. “For them, these movements are about freedom and justice and honoring their values.” As a result, Koeh­ler adds, newly minted extremists often experience feelings of euphoria, much like addicts who’ve just discovered the drug that will be their doom.

Since his arrest in November 2014, however, Yusuf had developed an introspective streak: He had devoured books ranging from 1984 to Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, and he’d tried his hand at writing self-­reflective poetry. (“I am an alleged ­terrorist/I am not sure how that makes me feel, I throw a fit/I am currently drinking a Sierra Mist” reads the opening stanza from a work he titled “I Am Human.”) Yusuf’s newfound love of reading and writing was the sort of opening that Koeh­ler might exploit.

Koeh­ler was less impressed by Yusuf’s codefendants, who struck him as still too enamored with extremist thought. One of the men, for example, told Koeh­ler that he had soured on the Islamic State because it sent child soldiers to the front lines without proper training—an oddly technical reason for turning against the group. When Koeh­ler then pushed the man, whom he declined to name, to give his definition of the word honor, the man instantly replied that it centered on one’s willingness to sacrifice everything for the greater good of one’s group. “So his definition of honor was 100 percent in alignment with ISIS’ definition of honor or even a neo-Nazi’s definition of honor,” Koeh­ler says. “The individual perspective was completely taken out. I could see from that how depluralized his worldview still was.”

Koeh­ler also spent a week with Kevin Lowry and 10 of his probation officers, who are in charge of running the day-to-day operation of the nascent Terrorism Disengagement and Deradicalization Program. He ran the officers through a series of training exercises designed to prepare them for counseling extremists. In one exercise, for example, Koeh­ler displayed a collection of Facebook footprints from a hypothetical teen in the midst of being radicalized by the Islamic State; these included everything from comments on videos about jihadis (“Brother revealing the truth behind the kuffr [sic] media lies”) to anguished posts about his fictional father’s disapproval of his new lifestyle. The officers were supposed to pick up on the fact that several of the posts featured images related to photography—one, for example, depicted a group of Islamic State soldiers staring at a digi­tal camera’s screen beneath the caption “Jihad Is Beautiful.” The intended takeaway was that the teen had once dreamed of becoming a photojournalist and that his repluralization should involve cajoling him to pursue that passion anew.

Koeh­ler spent the summer in Stuttgart, where he wrote up his evaluations. He then returned to Judge Davis’ courtroom last September to testify at a two-day presentenc­ing hearing. As Yusuf and the other five men who’d pleaded guilty listened in silence, Koeh­ler shared his conclusions with the room. Much of what he shared about the defendants’ odds of being deradicalized was surprisingly pessimistic. He had little positive to say, for example, about Abdirizak Warsame, a onetime spoken-word artist nicknamed A-Zak. Even though Warsame had joined Yusuf in cooperating with the government, Koeh­ler felt that the 21-year-old—who had briefly served as the “emir” of the group of wannabe jihadis—had repeatedly lied to him about the extent of his involvement in the conspiracy. Koeh­ler explained that Warsame’s continued deceit suggested that he wouldn’t be receptive to a counselor’s intervention; Koeh­ler also said that he feared that Warsame was likely to try to join a jihadist group if given the chance.

Koeh­ler’s take on Yusuf was by far his kindest. He applauded the now 20-year-old for having attained “a very advanced stage of disengagement and critical reflection” and affirmed that he was sure to benefit from further counseling. The final decision on whether Yusuf would be allowed to continue working with the Minnesota deradicalization program, however, would be entirely up to Judge Davis.

Even before he took the witness stand in Davis’ courtroom, Koeh­ler had already been contacted by agencies, including the FBI and the Department of Justice, looking to learn more about deradicalization training. That is a significant amount of interest given that the Minnesota experiment is still embryonic. But with a surprising number of Americans continuing to pledge their allegiance to the Islamic State—at least 110 people have been charged in the US so far—law-enforcement officials are eager to find ways to counter the organization’s appeal. And since extremism isn’t a problem that will vanish once the Islamic State is defeated, having deradicalization programs in place will help the authorities prepare for the next threat to emerge; a threat that could just as easily come from the far right as from the world of violent jihadism.

But US judges and politicians would be wise to temper their expectations about how much deradicalization can accomplish, and how quickly. For starters, they should be aware of the obstacles that Kevin Lowry has faced trying to recruit counselors and mentors for the Minnesota program: Many people have declined the job because they fear being accused of coddling terrorists. “It has been a challenge to secure providers in this area,” he says, “as some are concerned about the controversy and risk involved with terrorism cases.” Lowry is also troubled by the fact that the Federal Bureau of Prisons has yet to indicate whether it will arrange for the new Minnesota program to work with inmates; Lowry fears that extremists who receive no treatment while incarcerated will be impossible to deradicalize once they’re released.

Anyone intrigued by Minnesota’s promise must also understand that, despite plenty of encouraging anecdotes from former neo-Nazis and jihadis in Europe, there is still little quantitative proof that deradicalization programs can weaken extremist movements over the long term. In Germany, for example, the number of hardcore neo-Nazis has remained static over the past two decades, even as Exit-­Germany and other programs have expanded their reach. Better results may ensue as counselors improve their tactics in response to new research, but progress will always require saint­like patience: Getting an extremist to permanently shed all of their poisonous ideas is a lot like getting an opiate abuser to kick their addiction for good.

“There was one case, a woman, she said it took her 10 years to be deradicalized and leave her group,” says Mary Beth Altier, a professor at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs who studies violent extremism. “Every day she would have to look in the mirror and challenge her beliefs, because her brain had been wired a certain way.” To make matters even more challenging, researchers don’t yet have a clear sense of how to keep the graduates of deradicalization programs from backsliding; in a world in which extremist propaganda and recruiters are always just a broadband connection away, reengagement is more of a threat than ever.

The true value of deradicalization may be in what it signals to marginalized populations rather than in its ability to directly rescue hundreds of young people from the clutches of extremism. For communities such as the 40,000-strong Somali American one in Minnesota, seeing that their wayward members are treated with some measure of compassion can hopefully reduce their feelings of persecution.

“I think the proper development and implementation of these programs, and letting communities know these programs exist, goes a long way toward cultivating trust with these communities that are most at risk for radicalization,” says Kurt Braddock, a communications lecturer at Penn State who is currently studying how best to counter jihadist messaging. “If we show them that we’re not just interested in draconian measures, in locking them up and throwing away the key, that will be something that develops a better relationship between us.”

“THE ONLY REASON I’m alive today is because I was stopped at the airport.”

Abdullahi Yusuf spoke as he faced Judge Davis on the morning of November 14. Behind him, the courtroom’s gallery was packed with members of his family—the people whom, just two and a half years earlier, he’d been willing to abandon so he could fight and die for the Islamic State. He was the first of three defendants to be sentenced that day.

“I realize this is my second chance in life,” Yusuf continued. “I now see a future for my life in a way I didn’t see before.”

Though judges usually remain stoic when pronouncing sentence, Davis was, at one point, on the verge of tears as he addressed Yusuf: These terrorism cases had consumed two years of his life, and he had agonized over how to strike the right balance between mercy and justice. The judge had to pause for a moment before confessing, “This is so difficult.”

Davis described the months he’d spent researching deradicalization programs from around the globe, and he admitted that it’s still questionable whether deradicalization is anything more than a feel-good placebo. But, he said, “I’m going to take that chance.” And with those words, he informed Yusuf of his fate: He would spend up to a year in a halfway house, followed by two decades of supervised release. If he kept up with his counseling and didn’t break any laws, he would never see the inside of a prison cell. Few other American terrorism defendants have been so fortunate, particularly in the age of ISIS.

“It doesn’t make sense for me to send him to prison,” Davis said. “I hope I’m not wrong.”

“I won’t let you down, Your Honor,” Yusuf replied.

The degree to which Davis valued Koeh­ler’s input became clear less than two hours later, when Abdirizak Warsame appeared before the court. In keeping with Koeh­ler’s dim view of Warsame’s potential for deradicalization, the judge sentenced him to 30 months in prison, even though he had testified for the government.

“I’m not convinced you’re still not a jihadist,” said Davis, in a line that paraphrased Koeh­ler’s evaluation. But Warsame should count his blessings: Davis sentenced the remaining seven defendants, including the three convicted at trial, to terms ranging from 10 to 35 years.

When I reached Koeh­ler to discuss the years of counseling and supervision that lay ahead for Yusuf, he was in Tunisia at a conference organized by families who’ve lost children to extremism. He was pleased that Judge Davis had heeded his advice, especially in light of the sharp right turn that the US had taken a week earlier on Election Day. “He could have gone along with the foreseeable decline in governmental interest in deradicalization, but instead he decided to push it further,” he said. “That’s groundbreaking and brave.”

But Koeh­ler was also worried about whether the Minnesota program will receive the financial support it needs to function, grow, and spread to other jurisdictions in a Trump administration. Even if there were reams of peer-reviewed data that attested to the long-term efficacy of deradicalization, the concept would be an extremely tough sell in a nation in which slowly enunciating the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” is a proven vote-winner. The fact that deradicalization is still in its experimental phase suggests that it will have few, if any, advocates at the highest levels of American government.

The future of deradicalization in the US could well depend, then, on how effectively Yusuf is able to tell his own story. He’s a long way from even attempting that right now as he adjusts to life in the halfway house: Koeh­ler emphasizes that Yusuf is still in a fragile place.

But if he can take full advantage of his rare second chance and rejoin civil society, Yusuf will become a living exemplar of the idea that there can, indeed, be a road back from extremism. His redemption would affirm that those naive enough to join what are essentially death cults should never feel like all is lost, and that American society should think twice before treating them as such.

His single anecdote will prove nothing definitive about deradicalization’s potential, of course. But sometimes it takes an emotional story to inspire people to demand better science.

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