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Radicalization Recipe: Why Young People Are Drawn To ISIS


A group of three young Somali-Americans from Minneapolis were convicted Friday of attempting to travel to Syria to join ISIS and commit murder. They now face life in prison. Six of their friends were also part of the plan and have pled guilty to terrorism charges. Among the central questions of the trial were - what motivated the young men? - and who convinced them to try to join ISIS?

The court asked our next guest for help in answering those questions. His name is Daniel Koehler. He's a German researcher and renowned expert in deradicalization. The judge in this case asked him to evaluate some of the young men who had already pleaded guilty and to develop a program that might rehabilitate them. Mr. Koehler gave us his assessment.

DANIEL KOEHLER: First of all, I'm trying to look at what I call the radicalization recipe - experiences of racism, bullying, fights in the family, lack of education or job - anything that really, really frustrates you and alienates you from your hosting society. And the second set of factors are positive factors - quests for justice, significance, honor, freedom; helping to defend the poor, the weak; changing society for good.

For every single person that radicalizes in a violent extremist way, be it jihadi extremism or neo-Nazi white supremacism, they have an individual mixture of these factors. It helps to make sense of what is not really going well in their lives, but also to help them understand what is right and wrong and translate it into positive, proactive action.

MARTIN: How do you do that?

KOEHLER: I talk to them. I listen to them. Yes, honestly, I talk to people who have been close to them, sometimes teachers, friends, brothers and sisters, coaches from their basketball team, social workers. I look at every available piece of information - their social media accounts. I take together what I can get. And most importantly, I listen to them.

MARTIN: So that's how you assess the motivations. But how do you prescribe a rehabilitation regimen? Do you tell someone they should read certain books? Do they need to go to a certain kind of counseling? Do they have to do volunteer work?

KOEHLER: The first step, really, is to identify the driving factors. Then, I can look into my toolbox - and counseling is part of it, mentoring is part of it - religious tools in counseling, social tools in counseling, educational and psychological. And you can look into finding a person, a mentor that is, by his or her biography, interesting to these kids. For example, just an example - someone to go to Syria to help women and children, to defend these poor and weak who are slaughtered every day - and they are willing to give up their lives because they are attracted by this heroism - this honorable, almost shining knight in armor thing - story and narrative.

So it would make sense, as part of the solution, to bring them in contact with a mentor, for example, a paramedic or a retired police officer who share certain characteristics that bind them together - that helps them to connect. They are also part of this hero narrative. Thereby, you can show them that there are human beings from the other side who share the same values, the same ideas and interests.

MARTIN: You mentioned religion as an important component of all of this. What does that look like? How do you use religion or religious leaders in deradicalization programs?

KOEHLER: When I talk about ideological deradicalization, this can include a religious component. Sometimes, they are driven by a specific religious or theological interpretation of Islam that they find interesting or find compelling, sometimes not. In my experience, the majority of these adolescents is rather not driven by a theological motive. They are driven by this warrior spirit, this lead identity of the mujahideen of fighting, defending the poor and fighting to establish the caliphate. They're not really interested in going into the depth of theological discourse.

It can even be dangerous. A failed or ill-designed deradicalization program is not just a waste of money. It actually raises the risk of recidivism and terrorism because if you send in the imam and have no idea what they are doing and what they talk about and the kids in prison win the argument, you will inoculate them. You make them stronger as recruiters. And this is what we have to avoid, which is why, sometimes, it completely makes no sense to use a religious authority in the counseling. And sometimes, it is absolutely the right thing to do.

MARTIN: How do you know if someone truly is rehabilitated? It's complicated, I imagine. I mean, there are cases, one in particular, the head of al-Qaida's arm in Yemen was a graduate of a rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia. He returned to the fight. How do you avoid that kind of situation?

KOEHLER: I think that's a very, very legitimate question. And let me say that definitely there are persons that cannot be rehabilitated. Rehabilitation, deradicalization is an additional tool for a certain percentage of those who are willing to accept that counseling and that help. It is not possible to deradicalize and rehabilitate each and every one. It's simply not possible. Every social program has a certain rate of recidivism or failure. All of them will be supervised by the authorities - so by the intelligence - for a very long period of time. And they won't be able to board a plane for a long period of time.

Really, it's a step-by-step process, starting from a very careful, slow, guided process and slowly taking out the (unintelligible) security agencies and until we are convinced - these specialized counselors that I have trained - until they are convinced that the positive change is lasting, is sustainable and is honest.

MARTIN: You have been training probation officers here in the U.S. So you clearly believe there is a role for law enforcement. When we take this case for example, the men you interviewed in Minneapolis - they pleaded guilty. They will serve some time in prison in addition to any kind of deradicalization program that you propose. What do you think the law enforcement response should be in these cases in general - rehabilitation and jail, just rehabilitation and how do you figure that out?

KOEHLER: The crux here really is - or the main responsibility for the courts - for the judges is to figure out the percentage or the relationship between taking the responsibility for what they've done, meaning going to prison for a certain amount of years, and giving them a chance to change. They are 19, 20, 21 years old. They have their lives ahead of them. Many of them have been lured by very sophisticated recruiters and the network of a group of terrorist organizations that is highly sophisticated. I honestly believe that giving people a second chance to change is one of the core principles of a democratic, pluralistic society.

MARTIN: You said that, at some level, this is about listening to someone, looking in their eyes and deciding if you're going to believe them that they have had a real change of heart. That is a leap of faith to some degree. Are you mostly right? Have you ever been wrong?

KOEHLER: That's a very complicated question because many of these cases, they take years before really a, more or less, final direction is visible. Let me say - I am not naive. I know that when they're sitting in front of me and the families are sitting in front of me or their friends, they have an agenda. They have a clear goal. These kids - of course they do not want to be in prison 15 years or longer. Of course, they want to get out. Of course, they want to show me that they have been misled and that they're terribly sorry. I know that.

What I'm looking for is a specific kind of narrative. If I see the willingness to change and remorse and guilt in a way that they hopefully cannot fake - I'm not perfect, so I won't say I've been always right. The key to success here is really a coordinated approach. My assessment will not alone determine the sentence. So in the end, it's a multifold approach. And we're not talking about letting them out in the hand of the social worker and that's it. Whatever happens, it will be a long, guided, coordinated process with specialized trained counselor or probation officer with multiple agencies being involved to watching these kids - that they are not actually going back and planning something or acting illegal again.

MARTIN: Daniel Koehler is the director of the German Institute on Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies. He joined us via Skype. Mr. Koehler, thank you so much.

KOEHLER: Thank you for having me. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.