A federal judge in Minnesota has created the nation's first pre-sentencing program for defendants charged in terrorism cases to assess how radicalized they are and to begin working toward de-radicalizing them.
US District court Judge Michael Davis contracted a German firm, the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies (GIRDS), to conduct evaluations of four Minnesota residents who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to support the Islamic State.
Under the arrangement, a researcher from GIRDS, Daniel Koehler, will travel to Minnesota and conduct interviews with each of the defendants, Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman, Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame, Abdullahi Mohamud Yusuf, and Hanad Mustafe Musse, as well as with their families and community members, and then provide a detailed report to Davis with recommendations for sentencing.
"We're setting up the first program in the country. And it's baby steps. And you can see — we tried to find the best expert possible to help us," Davis told reporters in Minnesota this week. "As you know these cases go on for a long period of time and we can do a lot while they are sitting in jail."
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In his official court order announcing the program on March 2, Davis said the goals of the program are to identify factors that drove the individuals to become radicalized, assess how engaged, committed, and capable they were to carrying out acts of violence, evaluate how likely they are to re-offend, and determine whether they might be successfully de-radicalized. Koehler will also be asked to provide specific de-radicalization strategies for each defendant, including recommendations for experts in the US who could help implement the strategies.
"It does not make sense why someone who's never been involved in any type of criminal activity, was not seriously religious, [would] in a very short period of time want to go over and be involved in jihad," Davis said.
Koehler, in an email from GIRDS' headquarters, said that the partnership came about through research on the part of Davis, who was faced with other terrorism cases in Minnesota and "recognized that no one in the United States had actually any practical knowledge of how to organize and structure such an approach."
Davis sent a chief probation officer on a research trip to London and Berlin to study existing programs and find the one which best matched his needs, Koehler said. Once Davis met with Koehler, he asked him to study and work with the four defendants as well as to train Davis' staff in de-radicalization, which Koehler will do on a trip to Minnesota in April.
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John Horgan, a researcher in the psychology of terrorism at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism, said that about 40 de-radicalization and intervention programs have sprung up around the world over the past 10 to 12 years, and while few have hard evidence to prove that their strategies are successful, many in the counter-terror field are in agreement that the programs and strategies should be implemented and experimented with.
"In an era where we are so reliant on electronic surveillance and death by drone, there are some who will see it as little more than pandering to extremists but I think it's very good," Horgan said. "My reading is that this represents an acknowledgment that extremists or terrorists come in all shapes or sizes, that not everyone is a mastermind and that sentences should reflect those types of differences."
The programs, some of which focus on religious education, while others focus on things like vocational training or education, represent the "gradual development of a cottage industry," Horgan said. The program in Minnesota will be similar to those in places like Singapore, where experts asses the individual not just in terms of their personal motivations but also their context, including their social structures and the roles of their families.
"I know they have had some successes in Germany which is presumably why they've bene invited to do this," he said. "The big question is does it work and what happens if it doesn't work. At very least, if it doesn't work, we'll know why it doesn't work. Because it's the very first effort in the US it's unrealistic to expect it to be perfect."
Koehler warned that not all extremists can be de-radicalized, and that the strategy doesn't eliminate risk of re-engagement with extremist ideologies, but reduces the risk. The approach used by GIRDS stems from Germany's longstanding experience de-radicalizing neo-Nazis, he said. They've also set up extensive family counseling for relatives of jihadists.
"My personal experience and those of my colleagues convinced me that it is possible do de-radicalize terrorists under certain circumstances and with the right approach," he said.
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The most important part of the de-radicalization strategy was to help protect communities, Koehler said, a goal shared by Davis in his court order. If the strategies are successful, they may even have a ripple effect, he said, by sending out reformed extremists to condemn their former views and help discourage others from adopting them.
"For those who are in the advanced stages of radicalization these approaches might produce the strongest and most credible voices against ISIL and other groups and to destroy their hierarchies and appeal," Koehler said.
Horgan said that programs like Davis's will help determine whether and how the court system should offer extremists second-chances and how to strategize for their eventual re-entry into society. The trial run in April can be used as a model for evaluating those already serving time to help create re-entry strategies, he said.
"I think this judge so far is a brave figure in all of this. It's a step in the dark and in a new direction. It's innovative, it's creative. We don't see this kind of risk taking in counterterrorism often, so I applaud it and wish more would follow his lead," Horgan said. "Whether he's successful remains to be seen, but there are a lot of people in national security circles who say we should be taking risks and seriously entertaining ideas of diversions."
Davis declined to comment on the program to VICE News.
Related: Watch the VICE News documentary Homegrown Radicals.