Over three days starting Monday, Judge Michael J. Davis of the federal District of Minnesota will sentence nine men convicted of aiding the so-called Islamic State, better known in the West as ISIS.
The defendants, all young Somali-Americans from Minneapolis, once yearned to fight in Syria, and they supported one another in their efforts to travel there. Several of the aspiring jihadists were arrested while in the midst of heading to the war zone; Abdullahi Yusuf, for example, was moments away from boarding an Aeroflot flight to Istanbul when he was pulled aside by an FBI surveillance team, which had been monitoring his every move ever since he botched his interview for an expedited passport. Six members of the group eventually pled guilty to conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization; two of those men,Yusuf and Abdirizak Warsame, also agreed to testify against the three defendants who were convicted at trial.
Yet no matter their level of contrition or cooperation, the six men who accepted plea bargains now face up to 15 years in prison—a typical punishment for the 58 Americans who’ve been found guilty of aiding the Islamic State.
But Judge Davis has been frank about his hesitance to hand down such harsh sentences. He has openly wrestled with the fact that some of the defendants appear to be malleable youths who were ensnared by sly recruiting tactics: They were often lured into the group with invitations to pick-up basketball games, which were followed by late-night screenings of jihadist YouTube videos.
And so as Davis fielded the men’s guilty pleas last year, he also began to research therapies that might be able to neutralize any lingering toxic beliefs in the men who outwardly seemed remorseful. He did so in the hope that some of the defendants can be transformed back into their pre-jihadist selves and be safely released from custody—an act of mercy that would undermine the Islamic State narrative that the West despises its Muslim citizens.
Davis found no shortage of programs to investigate. Deradicalization has become a fashionable counterterrorism concept outside the United States: Nations from Denmark to Nigeria to Indonesia have all developed psychological methods for nudging young men and women back from the extremist brink. The approach that most impressed Davis, however, was the one from Germany that is unique in its insistence that deradicalization must be more science than art. It was created by Daniel Koehler, the 31-year-old founder of the German Institute for Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies.
In February, Davis hired Koehler to establish the District of Minnesota’s Terrorism Disengagement and Deradicalization Program, the first government initiative of its kind in the US. The mission statement that accompanied the announcement of the TDDP was clear about the perils it’s designed to address: “Untreated radicalized individuals will infect communities and continue to seek opportunities to harm others and martyr themselves.” Over the past ten months, Koehler has made multiple trips to Minneapolis to train law-enforcement officers in his techniques as well as interview the terrorism defendants at length. His recommendations regarding each defendant’s potential to be deradicalized will figure heavily into Davis’s sentencing decisions. Should Yusuf, Warsame, or any of the others end up as long-term TDDP clients, the experiment will be closely watched by law-enforcement officials in the 26 American states where people have so far been charged with ISIS-related crimes.
Koehler has long been known in deradicalization circles as a critic of programs that encourage well-meaning counselors to act on intuition, rather than in ways validated by data. “Many of these counselors, they do things because they feel right to them, but they can’t explain to you why,” says Koehler, who got his professional start at a German organization that helps disillusioned neo-Nazis reject their brutal pasts. “They have no training, no handbooks, no anything.” He notes, for example, that deradicalization counselors in Europe often force aspiring jihadists to meet with local clerics to discuss theology—a tactic that Koehler suspects is prone to backfire, since extremist recruits are taught to distrust religious leaders from the West.
Koehler’s frustration with the improvisational nature of many deradicalization programs inspired him to switch from being a counselor to a researcher: In 2014 he founded both the German GRIDS program and the peer-reviewed Journal of Deradicalization, two enterprises that have given him the opportunity to sift through mountains of case studies to discern the precise mechanics by which seemingly normal adolescents and twentysomethings can be coaxed into committing monstrous acts.
His chief insight from that research 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 many 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 “de-pluralization.” The solitary problem for a fully de-pluralized individual is always that there’s a global conspiracy against their race or religion; the solitary answer is that the only rational response to such persecution is violence, with the goal of placing themselves and their group atop a new social hierarchy.
Koehler sees little point in starting moral or theological arguments with the de-pluralized, who generally relish the chance to defend their own righteousness. Instead, he advocates “re-pluralization,” 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 says it might be wise to remind 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 them 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 interest; if the individual was, say, an avid practitioner of taekwondo, then a meeting can be arranged with a 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 individual is compelled to contemplate more problems and more solutions, they lose the fervor that once made them eager to kill.
The novelty and elegance of Koehler’s theory has intrigued governments seeking non-punitive means of combatting terrorism. In addition to running GIRDS from his home in Stuttgart, Koehler has spent much of the past two years as a globetrotting consultant. He has advised officials in Belgium, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Canada on how to set up deradicalization programs. He knows that his experiment in Minnesota will attract more scrutiny than any of those ventures, however, since leniency is often considered a dirty word in the US.
“I have already seen fierce criticism from the law-and-order people, saying these are terrorists and they don’t deserve to be treated by any program,” says Koehler. “But we need to have another option, because we can’t kill or imprison our way out of why ISIS looks cool to these kids.”
While the good intentions of that mission are beyond reproach, the emerging science of deradicalization is not. Koehler is upfront about how little evidence supports the notion that programs like his can weaken extremist movements: He admits, for example, that despite years of deradicalization efforts in Germany and plenty of individual success stories, the number of hardcore neo-Nazis in the nation has remained static.
Though Koehler’s research has revealed a great deal about how to guide people away from poisonous ideologies, that guidance requires such huge amounts of time and money that it can only have a limited impact. And since the science of deradicalization is so new, we don’t yet have a clear sense of what factors might cause the “graduates” of programs to backslide; in a world in which extremist propaganda and recruiters are always just a broadband connection away, re-radicalization is a constant threat.
The true value of deradicalization, though, may be in what it signals to marginalized populations, rather than in its ability to directly rescue vast numbers of youths from the clutches of extremism. “I think the proper development and implementation of these programs, and letting communities know these programs exist, that goes a long way toward cultivating trust with these communities that are most at risk for radicalization,” says Kurt Braddock, a communications professor 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.”
Generations may pass before those relationships become close enough to overcome the deep and mutual distrust that characterizes them today. Judge Davis’s decisions this week will help determine if we are willing to start that process in the US.