Can you 'cure' a terrorist? Inside the controversial scheme hoping to deradicalise ISIS recruits

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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 goodbye embrace. Unbeknown to his father, Yusuf believed he would never see 
any members of his family again.


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Yusuf stole out of school after his first lesson 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 stopovers 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 had been given by another friend, Abdirahman Daud. Yusuf had no idea who would answer the call, 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 Daesh.


Operation Troll ISIS: inside Anonymous' war to take down Daesh

Operation Troll ISIS: inside Anonymous' war to take down Daesh





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 that he'd supposedly booked, nor the Istanbul tourist attractions he wished to visit beyond the Blue Mosque. The examiner had reported this fishy behaviour 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 going on holiday 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 that he would be allowed to fly, so the teen took a taxi home. His parents were waiting for him there as other FBI agents had just arrived to let them know of their son's attempt to leave the country. Amid 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 law enforcement agents were closing in.


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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, his 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 pulled him over one November day, the teen went quietly.


Yusuf and five of his friends, all young Somali Americans from Minneapolis who had schemed to fight in Syria, eventually pleaded guilty to trying to join the Islamic State. Yusuf and one of his co-defendants, Abdirizak Warsame, went even further. He agreed to testify and help convict Daud and two other members of the group whom the government characterised as the conspiracy's leaders. (Two additional members made it to Syria and were killed fighting for Daesh.) No matter their level of contrition or co-operation, however, the six men who took plea bargains each faced up to 15 years in prison. This is a standard sentence for Americans found guilty of aiding the Islamic State.


"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"
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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 lured into the group during basketball games at a mosque. Afterwards, the men would spend hours watching a YouTube channel called Enter the Truth. The videos, which were slick Daesh productions, focused on the suffering of Syrian children and the moral corruption of the west. Soon, 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 them years behind bars. It would also be an act of compassion that would undermine the Daesh narrative that the west despises its Muslim citizens.


During his research, Davis discovered that numerous countries, from Denmark to Indonesia, have developed methods for nudging young people back from the brink of extremism. The process is known as deradicalisation. The judge soon became intent on starting the first deradicalisation laboratory in the US; he just needed to find an expert that he could trust. It had to be someone with a track record of liberating young minds from violent extremism. One name kept coming up - that of 30-year-old researcher Daniel Koehler.


When Tore Bjørgo began to study the neo-Nazi groups of his native Norway in the late 80s, 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 deradicalisation, 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 deradicalisation programmes throughout Europe, all aimed at far-right extremists who wanted to reinvent themselves. In 2010, one of the most well-known of those programmes, the Berlin-based Exit-Germany, hired Koehler as an intern. Koehler was a scholar of the Fulbright student-exchange programme who had studied religion and economics at Princeton. He was preparing for a master's degree in peace studies from the University of Hamburg and started full-time at Exit-Germany 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, let him explore how smart young people can be enticed into devoting themselves to twisted causes.


"These teenagers are intrigued by the promise that they will immediately start to change society and live out their ideals… For them, these movements are about freedom and justice and honouring their values"

Daniel Koehler

The start of Koehler's career coincided with a worldwide proliferation of deradicalisation programmes aimed at jihadis. In 2012, Koehler became a counsellor at one such programme 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 deradical-isation organisations approach their work. To his dismay, he discovered that many of those ventures lack any kind of scientific rigour. Some, such as Saudi Arabia's government-run counselling programme 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.


"Globally, the deradicalisation field is more or less completely free of any working standards, which is insane," Koehler says. "Many of these counsellors, they do things because they feel right, but they can't explain why. They have no training, no handbooks, no anything." He notes that counsellors ask local clerics to tell 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 programmes inspired him to delve deeper into research on deradicalisation. He wanted to use the scientific method to ascertain which techniques yield reliable results and which are just folk cures. In 2014, he founded the German Institute on Radicalisation and Deradicalisation Studies and the peer-reviewed Journal for Deradicalisation, 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 develop tunnel vision as they become indoctrinated. An ordinary 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 radicalisation, by contrast, sees their problems and solutions each get winnowed down to one - a process that Koehler terms "depluralisation". The one problem for these individuals is that there's a global conspiracy against their race or religion; the solitary solution to such persecution is violence, with the aim of placing 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 repluralisation: the careful reintroduction of problems and solutions into a radicalised person's life, so that they can no longer devote all their mental energy to stewing over their paranoia. If a Daesh sympathiser is intent on emigrating to Syria, 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 organise a charity run,' or 'I'll help you raise awareness in your school or your community.' Anything that will get that person to think about different ways to address the problem."


A counsellor can then engage a client about the pursuits they enjoyed before jihadism became their sole passion. If the individual was, for example, a practitioner of taekwondo, then a meeting can be arranged with a taekwondo champion who is also a devout Muslim and who can speak authoritatively about the challenge of balancing sports and faith.


In Koehler's ideal scenario, as a radicalised person is compelled to contemplate more run-of-the-mill issues, they lose the fervour 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 co-ordinator", and that full deradicalisation can be achieved 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 analysing 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 deradicalisation scene, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to 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 first-hand, about all this than Daniel, to say the least."


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But such criticism may be inspired in part by envy, for Koehler is in high demand. In addition to running his research institute from his home in Stuttgart, he has spent much of the past two years as a globetrotting consultant: he has advised officials in Belgium, the UK, the Netherlands and Canada on how to set up deradicalisation programmes. It's because of his prominence that Koehler's name was mentioned so often in the materials that Davis gathered during his hunt for a deradicalisation model to emulate.


Davis, a 69-year-old former public defender who's been on the federal bench since 1994, knew he had to be cautious. This was because he was certain to catch flak for simply daring to suggest that Daesh 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 Daesh-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 a Daesh 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 men, he'd need to present deradicalisation as being rooted in evidence, not just optimism.


In October 2015, Davis sent his chief probation officer, Kevin Lowry, to the UK and Germany to meet a slew of prospective deradicalisation 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 situated beneath the city's landmark television tower. By the time their plates were being cleared, Davis was convinced that Koehler had the expertise and temperament needed 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 programme was announced in March 2016, its mission statement was frank about the perils it means to address: "Untreated radicalised individuals will infect communities and continue to seek opportunities to harm others and martyr themselves." Less than two months later, Koehler travelled to Minneapolis to interview Abdullahi Yusuf and several of his co-defendants 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 German man trying to coax a Somali-American teen into revealing his 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. Details he gleans from these conversations let him identify "cognitive openings" - indications that an extremist really wants to change and will listen to guidance. Of all the personal stories that Koehler heard in Minneapolis, the 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 anesthesia or painkillers. When he was three 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. They then moved to a one-bedroom apartment in a crime-ridden section of north Minneapolis. Because he was Somali, Yusuf was routinely taunted by black and white classmates at public schools. But he wasn't shy about fighting back; when he was in year three, he once came to blows with a fellow student who'd torn the hijab off a Somali girl's head.


Desperate to fit in as he became a teen, Yusuf fell in with a gang who entertained themselves by stealing cars and smoking marijuana, often during school hours. His grades suffered, but he got back on track after his father, a stern and hardworking truck driver, moved the family to a better neighbourhood and challenged Yusuf to earn his high-school diploma.


In September 2013, Yusuf's history teacher asked him to give a presentation on Syria. Until that point, he knew little about the civil war engulfing the country. He was outraged to learn of the Syrian government's atrocities against civilians and children. It was 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 Daesh was primarily interested in protecting innocent Syrians, adding that Yusuf would be doing sacred work if he took up arms for such a noble group.


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Jacob Burge


Koehler describes Yusuf's radicalisation process as "by the book". "These teenagers 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 honouring their values." Newly minted extremists, Koehler adds, often experience 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. Yusuf's newfound love of literature was the sort of opening that Koehler might exploit.


Koehler was less impressed by Yusuf's co-defendants, who struck him as still too enamoured with extremist thought. One of the men, for example, told Koehler that he had soured on Daesh because it sent child soldiers to the frontlines without proper training - an oddly technical reason for turning against the group. When Koehler pushed the man for his definition of the word "honour", the man replied that it centered on a willingness to sacrifice everything for the greater good of one's group. "His definition of honour was 100 per cent in alignment with ISIS's definition or even a neo-Nazi's definition," Koehler says. "The individual perspective was taken out. I could see from that how depluralised his worldview still was."


Koehler also spent a week with Kevin Lowry and ten 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 counselling extremists. In one exercise, for example, Koehler displayed a collection of Facebook footprints from a hypothetical teen being radicalised by Daesh; these included comments on videos about jihadis and posts about his fictional father's disapproval. The officers were supposed to pick up on the fact that several posts featured images related to photography. One depicted a group of Daesh soldiers staring at a digital camera's screen beneath the caption "Jihad Is Beautiful." The takeaway was that the teen had dreamed of being a photojournalist and that his repluralisation should involve cajoling him to pursue that passion.


"It has been a challenge to secure providers in this area… as some are concerned about the controversy and risk involved with terrorism cases"

Kevin Lowry

Koehler wrote up his evaluations in Stuttgart. He then returned to Davis's courtroom in September 2016 to testify at a two-day, pre-sentencing hearing. As Yusuf and the other five men who'd pleaded guilty listened in silence, Koehler spoke to the room. Much of what he shared about the defendants' odds of being deradicalised 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 co-
operating with the government, Koehler felt that the 21-year-old - who had briefly served as the "emir" of the group - 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 counsellor'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 said he was sure to benefit from further counselling. The final decision on whether Yusuf would be allowed to continue working with the Minnesota deradicalisation programme, however, would be entirely up to Davis.


Even before he took the witness stand in Davis's courtroom, Koehler had already been contacted by agencies, including the FBI and the Department of Justice, looking to learn more about deradicalisation 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 organisation's appeal. Since extremism isn't a problem that will vanish once Daesh is defeated, having deradicalisation programmes will help 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 deradicalisation can accomplish, and how quickly. They should be aware of the obstacles that Kevin Lowry has faced trying to recruit counsellors and mentors for the Minnesota programme: many have declined because they fear being accused of coddling terrorists.

"It has been a challenge to secure providers in this area," Lowry says, "as some are concerned about the controversy and risk involved with terrorism cases." He is also troubled by the fact that the Federal Bureau of Prisons has yet to indicate whether it will arrange for the new Minnesota programme to work with inmates; Lowry fears that extremists who receive no treatment while incarcerated will be impossible to deradicalise once 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 deradicalisation programmes can weaken extremist movements over the long term. In Germany, for example, the number of hardcore neo-Nazis has remained static over the past 20 years, even as Exit-Germany and other programmes have expanded their reach. Better results may ensue as counsellors improve their tactics in response to research, but progress will require saint-like patience: getting an extremist to permanently shed 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 ten years to be deradicalised 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 more challenging, researchers don't have a clear sense of how to keep deradicalisation graduates from backsliding. When extremist propaganda and recruiters are only a broadband connection away, re-engagement is more of a threat than ever.


Deradicalisation's true value may be in what it signals to marginalised populations. For communities such as the 40,000-strong Somali American one in Minnesota, seeing wayward members treated compassionately could reduce feelings of persecution.


"I think the proper development and implementation of these programmes, and letting communities know these programmes exist, goes a long way towards cultivating trust with communities that are most at risk for radicalisation," says Kurt Braddock, a communications lecturer at Penn State who is studying the best ways to counter jihadist messaging. "If we show them that we are not just interested in draconian measures, 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."


Defying Daesh – with a 3D printer

Defying Daesh – with a 3D printer





Abdullahi Yusuf spoke as he faced Davis on November 14. Behind him, the courtroom was packed with his relatives - the people whom, just two and a half years earlier, he'd been willing to abandon so he could fight and die for Daesh. He was the first of three defendants to be sentenced that day. "I realise 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 on the verge of tears as he addressed Yusuf. These terrorism cases had consumed two years of his life and he had agonised over how to strike the right balance between mercy and justice. He had to pause for a moment before confessing, "This is so difficult."


Davis described the months he'd spent researching deradicalisation programmes from around the globe, and he admitted that it's still questionable whether deradicalisation 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 counselling and didn't break any laws, he would never see the inside of a prison cell. Few US terrorism defendants have been so fortunate, particularly in the age of Daesh.


"It doesn't make sense for me to send him to prison," Davis said. "I hope I am not wrong." Yusuf replied: 
"I won't let you down."


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Jacob Burge


The degree to which Davis valued Koeh­ler's input became clear, when Abdirizak Warsame appeared before the court. 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, paraphrasing Koeh­ler's evaluation, which took a dim view of Warsame's deradicalisation potential. But he got off lightly: Davis sentenced the remaining seven defendants to terms ranging from ten to 35 years.


When WIRED met Koeh­ler to discuss the years of work ahead of Yusuf, he was in Tunisia at a conference organised by families who've lost children to extremism. He was pleased that Davis had heeded his advice, especially in light of the sharp right turn that the US had taken on election day. "He could have gone along with the foreseeable decline in governmental interest in deradicalisation, but instead he decided to push it further," he said. "That's brave."


But Koeh­ler was also worried about whether the Minnesota programme will receive the financial support it needs to function in a Trump administration. Even if there were reams of peer-reviewed data that attested to its long-term efficacy, the concept would be a tough sell in a nation in which slowly enunciating the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism" is a vote-winner.


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The fact that deradicalisation 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 deradicalisation in the US could depend on how effectively Yusuf tells his story. Koeh­ler emphasises, though, that Yusuf is still in a fragile place. But if he can take full advantage of his second chance, Yusuf will be a living exemplar of the idea that there can be a road back from extremism. It would affirm that those naïve enough to join what are essentially death cults should never feel all is lost, and society should think twice before treating them as such.


Yusuf's single anecdote about mercy and redemption will prove nothing definitive about deradcalisation's potential, of course. But sometimes it takes an emotional story to inspire people to demand better science.


Brendan I Koerner is a contributing editor at WIRED US


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