Can men in MN ISIS case be reformed? Expert’s views to shape sentences

Published 9:23 am Tuesday, September 20, 2016

By Laura Yuen FM

Court records and indictments revealed how young Minnesota men were radicalized into trying to join ISIS. Today, a judge opens two days of testimony on whether those men can be rehabilitated.

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German deradicalization expert Daniel Koehler, brought into the case earlier this year, will take the stand in Minneapolis to discuss his views and findings on whether the Minnesota men can be reformed.

The hearings are unprecedented for a terrorism case in the United States. They could have a significant influence in the November sentencing of six men who pleaded guilty to trying to join the terror group and did not stand trial. They face anywhere from probation to lengthy prison time.

Koehler visited the men last spring at the request of Judge Michael Davis. His recommendations included mentoring and counseling for at least for some of the defendants, according to briefs filed by their attorneys, although the specific recommendations have not been made public.

His work in Germany has focused mostly on neo-Nazis. But he’s increasingly turned his attention to jihadist deradicalization. The researcher is likely to face tough questions from both defense attorneys and prosecutors in the Minnesota ISIS case.

“The parties are really going to work to understand whether or not they believe his findings are credible,” said Anders Folk, a former assistant U.S. attorney who helped bring charges against men involved with the terror group al-Shabab in Somalia.

The judge, Folk added, faces a difficult challenge when determining how much weight to give his expert’s findings.

“Judge Davis has heard more evidence live [at trial] than this expert has, so he will undoubtedly have reached some of his own conclusions,” Folk said. “He’s going to have to weigh what he’s seen or heard against what this expert finds, which may or may not be consistent with what came out of trial.”

Friends and family of the defendants are hoping Koehler’s findings help bring leniency, but that might be unpopular in the current climate.

One who pleaded guilty is 21-year-old Zacharia Abdurahman. His sister, Ikraan, says there’s more to her eldest brother than what’s been in the public eye.

“I want Judge Davis to know Zacharia is not just a felon. He’s my brother, he’s my support system. He’s someone I’ve always looked up to,” she said. “There’s this void in our house and in my heart that only Zacharia can fill.”

The judge does have a lot of discretion in sentencing, but he must consider a number of factors. That includes federal guidelines and whether the defendants provided substantial assistance to the government by cooperating with the investigation. A review of similar ISIS-related cases around the country by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minneapolis found most of the defendants were sentenced to the maximum penalty of 15 years.