Group With No Jihadi Experience Rehabs ISIS Recruit

They need to offer him to ISIS. Let him become a victim of his own choices.

The first attempt to de-radicalize an Islamic extremist is happening in Minnesota right now, and it resembles a high-school civics class.

An American citizen who pleaded guilty to supporting ISIS was ordered by a federal judge to leave jail—and go to a halfway home instead. That rehab program is run by a group that had no prior experience with would-be Islamic terrorists, The Daily Beast has learned.

Abdullahi Yusuf of Minnesota was allowed to depart from jail and stay at a halfway home after he pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS in January. (Yusuf was stopped at the airport trying to fly to Turkey in May 2014, at age 18.) Once inside the halfway home, Yusuf was to be “de-radicalized” through regular meetings with a counselor whose curriculum looked more like a high-school civics course than religious deprogramming.

His attorney proposed the de-radicalization program and Judge Michael Davis approved it over prosecutors’ objections. In a memorandum, the assistant U.S. attorneys trying Yusuf’s case reiterated their concerns about this program for Yusuf, because they said he had evaded his parents’ supervision and lied to authorities. Nevertheless, Judge Davis released him with an electronic monitoring device around his ankle.

Yusuf was assigned a bed at a halfway house in St. Paul where he could only leave for approved activities—like meetings with his mentors from a civics group called Heartland Democracy.

Heartland director Mary McKinley said she was not exactly sure why Yusuf’s proposal was granted, other than maybe it “just made sense.”

“On the other hand, it was also a surprise that any kind of access was given,” she said. “But I think it says a lot about what the U.S. attorney and the community were trying to do.”

Heartland had no prior experience with de-radicalizing jihadis, and it was carrying out the government’s first foray into deradicalizing ISIS sympathizers. While government-sanctioned de-radicalization programs for jihadis have existed for years in Canada, Europe, and even Saudi Arabia, the U.S. never faced large numbers of homegrown jihadists until the rise of ISIS. (More than 60 people have been arrested for, charged with, or convicted of ISIS-related crimes so far.)

The U.S. has been trying for years to “counter violent extremism” by fighting the message of terrorists instead of just the terrorists themselves. The State Department launched a Twitter account to push back against ISIS propaganda; the White House proposed better community policing and workshops with the “creative arts community.”

McKinley in court documents proposed adapting Heartland’s existing civics program for gangs to Yusuf.

McKinley said one of the first objectives is to “coach our youth in deep and sustained civic empowerment and ‘real’ civics made accessible, experiential, and multi-dimensional through the Empowering U curriculum and coaching method,” which is the program Heartland Democracy previously used.

In other words: civics for jihadis.

“This is the first time actually, as far as we can tell, that somebody has had the opportunity to be part of something like this,” McKinley told The Daily Beast, though she added that she was reluctant to call what her program does “de-radicalization.”

“I don’t call it that because that’s not what my background is in,” she said. “I guess people could label it as such.”

“I don’t know if he’s met with any religious leaders. I mean he’s an adult, he can get any visitor he wants.”

The judge approved Yusuf’s release in late January. He and a Somali-American mentor began to work through an extensive reading list, which included Richard Wright’s Native Son, a novel about growing up poor and black in the 1930s, and an article by Native American author Sherman Alexie about how poetry freed him from the “reservation” of his mind.

McKinley would not say how often Yusuf met his mentor.

“We met with him regularly, I don’t know the number of times a week,” she said. When pressed on whether they met weekly, biweekly, or at a different pace, McKinley would not clarify. “We met with him regularly.”