U.S. focuses on prosecution, not rehab, in response to would-be terrorists
There is excitement here, at the threshold of departure and violence.
The relative few who make it this far often reach the boundary in solitary rooms, their young faces lit by the glow of computer and phone screens.
On innocuous travel sites, the romantic names of faraway destinations — Moscow, Athens, Istanbul — inspire visions of adventure a world apart from their bedrooms in places such as Colorado, Texas or Virginia.
Voices from the other end of the journey float into their rooms from fighters in the Islamic State, peddling utopian visions of a land where needs are met, destinies are fulfilled and life is ruled by God's word.
This is the tipping point — the moment between legal thought and illegal action. As many as 250 people in the United States have crossed that threshold and joined or tried to join the Islamic State, according to the FBI. The bureau is investigating 900 cases spread across all 50 states, Director James Comey has said.
Western allies such as the United Kingdom and Germany have started programs to lead their citizens away from terrorist recruiters. But in the United States, prosecution remains the primary response.
That leaves parents who believe their children are about to join the Islamic State with a terrible choice: Tell the FBI and risk losing them to federal prison for 15 years or more, or tell no one and risk losing them forever in Syria's hellish dissolution or another battlefield in Iraq.
“That's an untenable position for a parent to be in,” said Seamus Hughes, a former community outreach specialist in the National Counterterrorism Center. He left government in June and works as deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University in Washington.
Radicalization isn't a linear path, Hughes said; people “go in and out.” Among them is Usama Hasan, an Islamic scholar and senior researcher at London's Quilliam Foundation.
As a young man, the lure of holy war drew Hasan to Afghanistan.
“For young people especially, that's actually very appealing, that sense of adventure and bravado. That was certainly one of my attractions,” said Hasan, who fought with the mujahideen against the Soviets. Ten years later, after Sept. 11, 2001, he flew to Saudi Arabia to meet al-Qaida recruiters who wanted to enlist him, he said.
Disillusioned with the group's infighting and interpretation of Islamic scripture, Hasan turned them down — the “ideal solution” to potential terrorist recruitment, said John Carlin, assistant attorney general for national security. Hasan returned to London, raised a family and, as he put it, “earned my place in society.”
Turning lives around
In 2011, Hughes and “a very small cadre” of others in the federal government began trying to make it easier to replicate Hasan's turnaround, talking to community and religious leaders in places where terrorist organizations had found recruits and sympathizers, Hughes said.
Loosely organized under the term “Countering Violent Extremism,” the idea is to teach local communities how to stop someone before he or she decides to join, rather than arresting that person afterward, said David Gersten, who became coordinator of the Department of Homeland Security's counter-extremism programs about a year and a half ago.
Boston, Los Angeles and Minneapolis set up pilot programs for early intervention, tapping teachers, mental health professionals, religious and community leaders, and police. In September, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson created the Office of Community Partnerships and made Gersten acting director.
“Some of our European partners, in particular the U.K., have a much more top-down approach to interventions,” Gersten said. “What we're building here in the United States is a little more organic.”
Fewer than 24 people in the Department of Homeland Security work full time on intervention programs, and 80 whose jobs include some aspect of the effort meet regularly, Gersten said. The size of his new office “remains to be determined,” in part because Congress hasn't set its budget.
“The department spends about $12 million” on CVE programs, Gersten said. “We're expecting to increase that.”
A quiet fight
In between the intervention efforts and those who travel and become members of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State is the prosecution of Asher Abid Khan.
“This kid was 18, just out of high school. The recruiting videos from ISIS show you looking like a ninja, doing exciting things,” said Thomas Berg, the Houston lawyer representing him.
Prosecutors say Khan introduced his friend, Sixto Garcia, to his contact in Syria, where they had planned to go together to fight. Garcia went, and is believed to have since died.
But Khan turned around when his plane landed in Turkey, a key transit point for Islamic State recruits. He returned to the United States when his family left a voicemail for him while he was in midair, claiming — falsely — that his mother was gravely ill.
When he returned in February 2014, Khan kept in touch with Garcia via Facebook. He enrolled in business school, re-established contact with friends from high school and began teaching Sunday school at his mosque, Berg said.
More than a year after he returned, the FBI charged Khan with conspiracy and providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization — punishable, if convicted, by up to 20 years in prison.
“It's a phase he passed out of. He tries to begin a normal life, and this comes out of the blue,” Berg said.
U.S. Magistrate Nancy Johnson in Houston allowed Khan to await trial under house arrest, rather than in prison.
People like Khan are a “perfect candidate” for rehabilitation programs, said Mubin Shaikh, a self-professed former Islamic radical. Shaikh returned to his native Canada from Syria in the early 2000s, and worked undercover for Canadian intelligence services in terrorism investigations.
Shaikh has spent long hours in online forums talking to would-be jihadis — many of them “kids” — about everything from Muslim rights in the West to Islamic scripture, he said.
“You think you're this great scholar — you're 17 years old,” Shaikh said.
Ali Shukri Amin, of Manassas, Va., was only 17 when he pleaded guilty to pro-Islamic State proselytizing online and helping an 18-year-old join the Islamic State. He is serving 11 years in prison. When he gets out, his sentence includes a lifetime of supervised release and monitoring of his Internet activities.
At the time of his actions, Amin received validation from radicals around the world for his tweets, said Shaikh, who tried to steer the youth away from radicalization.
“Here's a kid who's a complete loser — small, skinny, didn't fit in. And suddenly, he's a hero online,” Shaikh said. “He recruited an 18-year-old who went and will probably die over there.”
Those willing to intervene — an imam or teacher, for instance — might risk legal liability if they don't tell law enforcement and the person they're trying to help “goes ahead and does something horrible,” Hughes said.
That hasn't stopped some from trying, though. FBI agents, religious leaders and parents spent months trying to turn Shannon Conley, 20, away from her radical version of Islam.
At the same time, however, a man in Syria who was courting Conley told her they were lying to her. Her father walked in on one of their Skype conversations; they asked him to bless her plan to travel to Syria and marry him. He refused.
About two weeks later, John Conley called the FBI on his daughter after finding a one-way ticket from their home in Denver to Adana, Turkey. They arrested her on the jetway at the Denver airport.
She pleaded guilty in January to conspiracy to provide material aid to terrorists, and is serving four years at a low-security prison in Alabama.
“You're going to have to accept that you're not going to save everyone,” Shaikh said.
Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or email@example.com.