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Court Order May Signal New Approach To Preventing Radicalization


We've heard a lot lately about Americans trying to go to Syria to join the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Mostly, they are arrested just before stepping aboard a plane and charged with supporting terrorists.


Now a twist on that scenario. In Minneapolis, an 18-year-old Somali American had tried to go to Syria. He was arrested. And then this week, a judge ordered the young man be held at a halfway house and receive counseling rather than sit in jail. The judge's choice could signal a new approach to preventing radicalization. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has our report.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Abdullahi Yusuf did two things last year that he'd never done before. According to court documents, first, he applied for a passport. And then he opened a bank account. A few weeks later, though he was just a part-time employee at a local Best Buy, he made a large deposit - $1,500 in cash. And then using a debit card linked to the account, he bought a round-trip ticket to Turkey. He didn't get that far.

JEAN BRANDL: He was arrested and brought to court with a complaint of providing material support to a terrorist organization - in particular, ISIS.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Jean Brandl, Abdullahi Yusuf's lawyer.

BRANDL: They had what they thought was probable cause to arrest him for going to aid a terrorist organization in Syria.

TEMPLE-RASTON: There have been more than a dozen cases involving Americans who have been radicalized on the Internet and then decided to go to Syria to fight for or live in the so-called Islamic State. But instead of keeping Abdullahi Yusuf in jail while he awaits trial, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis sent him to a halfway house where, among other things, counselors will see if they can figure out why he got attracted to radical Islam in the first place. His terrorism case is still moving forward, but the judge said he could try this program while he waits. And that's new.

MARY MCKINLEY: Well, we are starting very slowly with Mr. Yusuf.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Mary McKinley is the executive director of Heartland Democracy, a Minneapolis nonprofit that works with people who've been involved with gangs or drugs or the law.

MCKINLEY: He'll be extremely limited with his movement, his association - no Internet or cell phone use. So we're starting with him very slowly with just some one-on-one mentoring and counseling.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Counseling that looks at the problems he sees with being Somali Muslim in America.

MCKINLEY: Figuring out where he is ideologically if that's an issue, whether deradicalization curriculum needs to be brought in - but really just kind of exploring how he sees his future on kind of a one-on-one basis.

TEMPLE-RASTON: McKinley and her organization, Heartland Democracy, haven't handled this kind of case before. Everyone seems to agree it's a giant experiment, but an experiment worth trying. Bruce Hoffman is a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. He says sending young men to jail can't be the only solution to the problem.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: So in this case, I think the judge is looking at it as a community and even a social problem, not just a criminal problem and that perhaps there are different approaches that might yield better long-term benefits.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Long-term benefits that include not just avoiding jail time but also allowing young men who may have joined ISIS a way to come home and admit they've made a terrible mistake.

HOFFMAN: I think by holding out the opportunity of some form of redemption - that gives them the hope of reclaiming the life that they had turned their back on - is a positive development.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Abdullahi Yusuf was one of the lucky ones. Authorities caught him before he left. His case may be about trying to help more than just one defendant. The judge's decision could help keep young Americans from trying to leave in the first place. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.
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