Group With No Jihadi Experience Rehabs ISIS Recruit

The first attempt to de-radicalize an Islamic extremist is happening in Minnesota right now, and it resembles a high school civics class.

08.25.15 3:13 AM ET

An American citizen who pleaded guilty to supporting ISIS was ordered by a federal judge to leave jail—and go to a halfway home instead. That rehab program is run by a group that had no prior experience with would-be Islamic terrorists, The Daily Beast has learned.

Abdullahi Yusuf of Minnesota was allowed to depart from jail and stay at a halfway home after he pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS in January. (Yusuf was stopped at the airport trying to fly to Turkey in May 2014, at age 18.) Once inside the halfway home, Yusuf was to be “de-radicalized” through regular meetings with a counselor whose curriculum looked more like a high school civics course than religious deprogramming.

His attorney proposed the de-radicalization program and Judge Michael Davis approved it over prosecutors’ objections. In a memorandum, the assistant U.S. attorneys trying Yusuf’s case reiterated their concerns about this program for Yusuf, because they said he had evaded his parents’ supervision and lied to authorities. Nevertheless, Judge Davis released him with an electronic monitoring device around his ankle.

Yusuf was assigned a bed at a halfway house in St. Paul where he could only leave for approved activities—like meetings with his mentors from a civics group called Heartland Democracy.

Heartland director Mary McKinley said she was not exactly sure why Yusuf’s proposal was granted, other than maybe it “just made sense.”

“On the other hand, it was also a surprise that any kind of access was given,” she said. “But I think it says a lot about what the U.S. attorney and the community were trying to do.”

Heartland had no experience with de-radicalizing jihadis, and it was carrying out the government’s first foray into deradicalizing ISIS sympathizers. While government-sanctioned de-radicalization programs for jihadis have existed for years in Canada, Europe, and even Saudi Arabia, the U.S. never faced large numbers of homegrown jihadists until the rise of ISIS. (More than 60 people have been arrested for, charged with, or convicted of ISIS-related crimes so far.)

The U.S. has been trying for years to “counter violent extremism” by fighting the message of terrorists instead of just the terrorists themselves. The State Department launched a Twitter account to push back against ISIS propaganda; the White House proposed better community policing and workshops with the “creative arts community.”

McKinley in court documents proposed adapting Heartland’s existing civics program for gangs to Yusuf.

McKinley said one of the first objectives is to “coach our youth in deep and sustained civic empowerment and ‘real’ civics made accessible, experiential, and multi-dimensional through the Empowering U curriculum and coaching method,” which is the program Heartland Democracy previously used.

In other words: civics for jihadis.

“This is the first time actually, as far as we can tell, that somebody has had the opportunity to be part of something like this,” McKinley told The Daily Beast, though she added that she was reluctant to call what her program does “de-radicalization.”

“I don’t call it that because that’s not what my background is in,” she said. “I guess people could label it as such.”

The judge approved Yusuf’s release in late January. He and a Somali-American mentor began to work through an extensive reading list, which included Richard Wright’s Native Son, a novel about growing up poor and black in the 1930s, and an article by Native American author Sherman Alexie about how poetry freed him from the “reservation” of his mind.

McKinley would not say how often Yusuf met his mentor. 

“We met with him regularly, I don’t know the number of times a week,” she said. When pressed on whether they met weekly, biweekly, or at a different pace, McKinley would not clarify. “We met with him regularly.”

Court documents also reference Yusuf meeting with religious leaders, but McKinley wasn't sure about that.

“I don’t know if he’s met with any religious leaders,” she said in response to a question about meeting with imams. “I mean, he’s an adult, he can get any visitor he wants.”

In April, the halfway house’s inspection of Yusuf’s room turned up a box cutter, which got him kicked out of the home—but not out of rehab.

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“He has been continuing with his reading and his writing and his studying in the jail, and now we’ve gotten approval for his mentors to go into the jail to meet with him one on one,” Yusuf’s lawyer, Jean Brandl, told The Daily Beast.

The proposal for Yusuf did not say how anyone would determine whether he’s been de-radicalized.

“There hasn’t been enough time yet to determine success, other than that he continues on the path that he’s on,” McKinley said. “My goal is just to keep working with him. I’m not at a point where I would have some grand goal. It’s a small part of the puzzle.”

Barely a month after Yusuf was remanded to police custody, attorneys for three other young Somali-American men arrested for supporting ISIS filed proposals to have them released before trial.

Lawyers for Hamza Naj Ahmed, Hanad Mustofe Musse, and Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman proposed that they live with their fathers and other family members. Once there, the attorneys proposed comprehensive plans in which the men would meet with religious and community members in order to integrate them into the local, peaceful Muslim community and to discuss theological issues.

Just like in Yusuf’s case, the individuals involved had no experience de-radicalizing would-be jihadis. In July, Judge Davis rejected the well-meaning efforts after prosecutors argued that, among other things, the proposed plans wouldn’t adequately supervise the youths or protect the community.

An assistant to Judge Davis said he “will not comment on that because it’s an ongoing case.”

One of the many problems with America’s nascent jihadi rehab program is that the burden falls on a “a lot of ad hoc organizations that are good-hearted” but ill-equipped to handle, said Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of George Washington University’s program on extremism.

Nevertheless, experts say it’s time to start trying.

“I think the sheer number of ISIS-related cases is causing both law enforcement and the judiciary to make a re-evaluation of what they think is the right punishment for these kinds of crimes,” Hughes said.

Prosecutors and judges may warm to the idea of rehab, but the public may be more reluctant to give a second chance to people seeking to join a group best known for beheading Americans.

“When you put a terrorism prism on it, people’s anxiety level rises,” said Mubin Shaikh, a former Islamic radical who now studies programs to disengage and de-radicalize other young people. Shaikh said rehab for wannabe terrorists isn’t really groundbreaking: Similar techniques have been used in gang prevention for decades.

“There’s an increasing awareness that [U.S. officials] want to at least try to give some of these kids an option, at least while their cases work through the court,” Shaikh said. “It’s a good step for sure.”

Likewise, it may give parents another way to save their children from joining ISIS.

“I think that explicitly making it part of the government’s arsenal” is good, said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy.

He cautioned against offering it as an alternative to incarceration, however.

“There is a huge incentive for people to claim false de-radicalization” in those cases, Gartenstein-Ross said.

Shaikh said the liars can be easy to spot.

“One of the small things that I look for is, does the person challenge you?” Shaikh said. “Because if the guy just accepts everything you say, he’s a fraud.”

More importantly, Shaikh said they have to disavow their old beliefs publicly, in a way that would later make it harder for them to tell other radicals that they were simply “faking it” through the deprogramming.

“You can see from other people who have de-radicalized… you can see it in their behavior and in their speech,” Shaikh said. “Is this person now promoting positive narratives, or are they continuing to spin their wheels in their old narratives?”

Both Shaikh and the U.S. government agree about what ultimately makes rehab work: The person must want to change. It’s not at all clear that these would-be ISIS recruits are looking to make such a shift.

“Indeed, there is no evidence that the defendants are seeking intervention—rather, it is being foisted upon them by other well-intentioned individuals,” the government wrote of the proposals for Ahmed, Musse, and Abdurahman.