CRF Blog

Can You Turn a Terrorist Back Into a Citizen?

by Bill Hayes

In Can You Turn a Terrorist Back Into a Citizen?, Wired magazine looks at a Minneapolis program that aims to reform homegrown ISIS recruits.

[Abdullahi] 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. [more]