MINNEAPOLIS — A German scholar testified Tuesday that it’s possible to de-radicalize violent Muslim extremists using the same techniques developed in Europe to help neo-Nazis break with their pasts.
Daniel Koehler appeared before U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, who in November will sentence nine Minnesota men who were convicted of plotting to join the Islamic State group. Davis asked Koehler to individually evaluate the six defendants who pleaded guilty and face maximum potential sentences of 15 years. Three other defendants, who went to trial and face potential life sentences, were not evaluated.
Koehler, who directs the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies in Stuttgart, said the United States doesn’t currently have any de-radicalization programs like those in Europe and Canada. He said the only people in the U.S. who are trained for that role are 20 to 25 federal parole officers in Minnesota whom he trained himself in preparation for starting a program here.
Prosecutors say the nine young men were friends in Minnesota’s sizeable Somali community who recruited or inspired each other to travel to Syria. None of them succeeded in leaving the U.S., though some of their other friends did. The six pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. The other three were each convicted of that plus a more serious count of conspiracy to commit murder overseas.
Koehler said there are strong similarities between how neo-Nazis and white supremacists get radicalized and how some Muslims are drawn to extremist groups such as the Islamic State, though their ideologies are different. He said people drawn to these movements come to see them as the solution to their own personal problems as well as the problems of their society as a whole, and they come to view violence as a necessary way to achieve change.
Similarly, he said, there are parallels in the things that make people want to leave these groups, and well-designed programs can take advantage of them. Those programs use a combination of the person’s self-motivation to change, counseling, and support systems such as families.
“You can work with part of these individuals, not all of them but some of them,” he said.
To assess the six men, Koehler interviewed them, their parents and siblings. When possible, he also interviewed imams, probation officers and others. He said he had access to all of the men’s court files and other records, and he examined statements they made while plotting to join the Islamic State. Among the things he tried to determine were whether they credibly rejected violence and took responsibility for their actions. He assigned risk levels to each defendant and also developed counseling plans for them.
Koehler rated at least one of the six as high risk, Abdirizak Warsame. While Warsame testified in the trial of the other three defendants, prosecutors say he was also a leader of the group.
Koehler rated Zacharia Abdurahman and Hamza Ahmed as medium-to-high risk, and Abdullahi Yusuf as low-to-medium risk. His reports on the two others will be discussed when the hearing resumes Tuesday.
The risk levels are based on their level of radicalization and their potential for rehabilitation, he said. People at the low end have already disengaged from their groups and their ideologies but those rated high show little remorse or guilt, nor any visible signs of turning away from radicalism, he said.
Davis made it clear that he’s thinking carefully about the most appropriate sentences for the six, who were all present in his courtroom Tuesday. He said his primary job is to make sure the community is safe, and he knows all six will be released eventually.
The judge also noted that he earlier handled 12 cases of Minnesotans convicted for their roles in supporting the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab, and that some of those defendants will go free soon.
The federal sentencing guidelines recommend the 15-year maximum for these six defendants, Davis said. He’s free to hand down shorter sentences, and to consider whether they helped the government prosecute the other defendants and additional factors. But he said deviating too far from accepted norms could result in sentences getting overturned on appeal.