FBI agents intercepted 18-year-old Abdullahi Mohamud Yusuf of Minnesota at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport last May while en route to Syria to join ISIS. He had obtained a passport under false pretenses, claiming that he wanted to visit Istanbul on vacation. He was later formally arrested and charged with conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, and entered a guilty plea on Thursday. He could spend up to 15 years in prison.
Minnesota has been a trouble spot for terrorist recruiting, most actively involving members of the Somali community joining al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia. Young Mr. Yusuf’s tastes ran more to the Islamic State, which recruited him out of high school.
That recruitment process is of obvious interest to counter-terrorism agencies, as the Associated Press relates Yusuf’s court testimony that he “attended meetings in Minnesota last March and April in which participants discussed fighting,” received financial assistance to purchase his plane ticket from someone who has not been identified to the public yet, and had plans to join another young Minnesota recruit in Istanbul, 20-year-old Abdi Nur. (Nur faces charges if he ever returns to the U.S., but he made it to the Islamic State and is currently believed to be fighting for them in Syria.)
Yusuf’s lawyers attempted to argue the rather odd technicality that the Islamic State was only formally classified as a terrorist organization 12 days before he tried to join them; it would not be much of a technicality unless the designation was made after he was stopped at the airport.
He might not serve much prison time at any rate, as he is not in jail now; he has been “allowed to stay at a halfway house while his case has been pending, and is allowed to work with a group that promotes civic involvement as a way to keep youth engaged, with hopes of keeping him on a positive track and reintegrating him into society,” according to the AP. No matter what sentence he receives, he will continue “working with coaches, and hopes to eventually continue his college studies.”
Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) described this halfway house program as “a very big bet on Yusuf” in a February 12 profile, but ventured that he might be “an ideal test case” for the program to pull radicalized Americans “back from the call of terror” and return them to their communities.
A great deal of Yusuf’s supposedly perfect fit for this plan hinges on the perception that he is “closer to being a naive young person than someone who is already engaged in something that might be a threat to our community or people halfway around the world,” as Mary McKinley of the Heartland Democracy group put it. The goal is to rehabilitate him to the point where he can “coach basketball, mentor other teens,” and “join a peer group of young Somali-Americans who can talk about the challenges of straddling two cultures,” the MPR report explains. Interest in such programs reportedly exists in European countries dealing with their own ISIS recruiting problems, including the looming threat of trained paramilitary fighters returning home after serving in the Islamic State’s armed forces.
There’s some talk of the “community organizer” approach to counter-terrorism in the article, including quotes from an actual community organizer named Mohamud Noor, who said of Yusuf’s possible jail sentence, “When he comes out, will he be rehabilitated or will he be the same person? He can go to jail. That is what the court system will determine. But are there any processes that we can help this young man to be rehabilitated?” A plan to combat the radicalization of young people in the United States with social programs, mentoring, and job counseling is discussed.
No one quoted in the MPR piece mentions it, but another potential pitfall with putting a young would-be jihadi into jail for a relatively brief prison sentence is that prison gangs are another major source of Islamist radicalization. Balanced against these considerations is the danger to the public posed by anyone who would sign up with the monstrous evil of the Islamic State – an evil they prominently advertise in their recruiting program. When a young man buys that plane ticket to Turkey and plans his dash into Syria, he knows he is joining a sadistic, homicidal, genocidal militant gang.
Evidently, the official posture of state and federal agencies remains that bored, alienated young people without good job prospects are joining ISIS because they essentially have nothing better to do. Before sentences are passed down and halfway house rehabilitation programs are advanced as the answer, the judge should be certain he’s not dealing with someone who was really looking forward to murdering infidels.