The Birth of Terrorist Deradicalization Programming in the U.S.?

Photo Credit:Fox News

By: Sarah Gilkes, Columnist

In December 2013, Sinh Vinh Ngo Nguyen pleaded guilty to one count of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. After Nguyen entered his plea in a California court, United States District Court Judge John F. Walter remarked, “I simply do not understand how we can rehabilitate [Nguyen’s] commitment to die for his beliefs.”[i]

Three years later, a dramatically different sentiment appears to be taking hold in Minnesota. In the spring of 2016, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, a senior federal judge in Minnesota, ordered ten men who either pleaded guilty to or were convicted of terrorism-related charges to be evaluated by counterterrorism expert Daniel Koehler prior to sentencing.[ii] The aim of these assessments: determine why these men radicalized, how they can be rehabilitated, and what risk, if any, they posed to the community.[iii] Judge Davis’ decision was a historic one—never before has such an organized and researched deradicalization initiative been pursued in the U.S.[iv]

The Minneapolis-area men were mostly teens when they were arrested, and they were charged with an array of terrorism-related offenses in connection with their attempts to support the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).[v] These charges can mean long prison sentences, often fifteen years or more. An alternative to lengthy incarceration, this new approach was described by Judge Davis’ office as an attempt “to provide purposeful pretrial and post-incarceration supervision” and equip the men with the tools to “become successful, law-abiding citizens.”[vi]

Judge Davis asked Koehler to work with U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services in Minnesota[vii] to provide written risk assessments and evaluations that identify what led each of the men to radicalize in support of ISIS.[viii] The program is voluntary, and all but one of the defendants have participated.[ix] Koehler evaluated six of the defendants himself and trained the probations and pretrial officers to conduct similar assessments in the future.[x]

Daniel Koehler has a long history working with radicalized individuals. His early work with EXIT-Germany (EXIT) focused on helping members of neo-Nazi groups in Germany leave the movement.[xi] More recently, he led deradicalization and intervention initiatives in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.[xii]

In 2011, Koehler co-founded HAYAT-Germany (Hayat), the first German counseling program designed for those on the path to violent Islamist extremism and their families.[xiii] Hayat’s primary goal “is to slow down and stop…radicalization and induce a potential de-radicalization process.”[xiv] Hayat is built upon the belief that the social environment—including family, friends, and community members—is central to effective deradicalization and prevention work.[xv] In most cases, counselors conduct an initial risk assessment before referring families to an NGO in the network.[xvi] To meet each individual’s needs, a network of partners from various sectors support the counselors throughout the process.[xvii] Cases are “time sensitive and labor-intensive,” and the process often takes months.[xviii]

Similar to the Hayat model, Koehler’s initial risk assessments in Minnesota included interviews with the defendants and their family and friends.[xix] Ideally, this is just the start; Koehler has indicated that the final program could include “job training, volunteer work in the community and religious counseling,” much like those developed in the German model.[xx] As in the Hayat model, the deradicalization process will be slow – taking months or years.

Koehler delivered the assessment results to Judge Davis in mid-September, explaining that some defendants would benefit from early-release counseling programs or placement in a halfway house, but others still pose a significant risk to the community.[xxi] The assessments were complicated by a lack of prison counseling and religious services that support deradicalization efforts. U.S. policies in this area are very underdeveloped compared to European peers.[xxii]

Judge Davis’ initiative is truly cutting-edge and is a move in the right direction for U.S. counterterrorism policies at a critical juncture. The number of terrorism-related arrests in recent years is unprecedented: 104 individuals have been charged with ISIS-related offenses since March 2014,[xxiii] to say nothing of those charged with terrorism-related offenses unconnected to ISIS.[xxiv] The number and variety of terrorism cases in recent years highlight that, contrary to a strategic culture that values ‘bringing to justice’ suspected terrorist sympathizers,[xxv] the U.S. cannot arrest its way out of the threat. Innovation is necessary, and Judge Davis’ initiative is an important first step.

Importantly, however, the Minnesota program raises a number of concerns in implementation. First, Koehler has already been asked to provide risk assessments and suggest individualized deradicalization programs in two other cases in other districts.[xxvi] Over time, his approach could gain disproportionate influence on American counterterrorism policy. Second, it is notoriously challenging to obtain ‘buy-in’ for deradicalization programs because it is difficult to measure their effectiveness, and as Koehler himself conceded, “There’s no 100 percent guarantee that these intervention methods actually work.”[xxvii] Third, and perhaps most importantly, transferring deradicalization programs from one country to another has historically proven challenging. What worked in Germany won’t necessarily work in the United States, and what works in Minnesota might not even be transferable to other states. As deradicalization programs are implemented in new areas, complications will likely arise as a result of differences in culture, legal protections, and relations with local communities.

However, a number of steps can be taken to safeguard against the potential pitfalls discussed above. First, as Judge Davis and others develop their own programs, a variety of existing models should be considered and even combined to help ensure that the program meets the needs of the local community.

Second, when attempting to engender support for these programs in the U.S., advocates should stress that an individual’s participation does not preclude punishment for crimes committed. Rather, deradicalization programs seek to rehabilitate a specific subset of offenders whose unique needs have not been met. Supporters should also stress the similarities between the goals of deradicalization programs and successful gang prevention initiatives in the U.S.[xxviii]

Third, advocates should underscore the risks associated with failure to implement deradicalization programs: without the proper rehabilitation tools, a decade or more in federal prison can entrench and inflame radicalism. When properly implemented, deradicalization programs can help curb commitment to jihadist ideology. Further, supporters should highlight the fact that deradicalized individuals are some of the most credible and effective voices in countering terrorist recruitment and radicalization.[xxix]

Judge Davis’ pioneering deradicalization program is risky and challenges the United States’ traditional approach to domestic counterterrorism. But, as with all things, without risk there is no reward. In this instance, the potential rewards are well worth the risk.

[i] Matt Hamilton, “Sinh Vinh Ngo Nguyen Sentenced to 13 Years for Trying to Aid Al Qaeda,” Associated Press (via Christian Science Monitor), June 30, 2014.

[ii] Nicole Hong, “Judge Tries New Approach with Terror Defendants: Deradicalization,” The Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2016.

[iii] German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies (GIRDS), “GIRDS Contracted to Design New Deradicalization Program in the United States,” News, April 3, 2016.

[iv] Amy Forliti, “Federal Court in Minnesota Creates Deradicalization Program,” The Associated Press, March 3, 2016.

[v] Laura Yuen, Mukhtar Ibrahim, and Sasha Aslanian, “Called to Fight: Minnesota’s ISIS Recruits,” Minnesota Public Radio News (MPR), March 9, 2016.

[vi] Milton J. Valencia, “A Radical Idea for Sentencing Terrorism Suspects,” The Boston Globe, September 1, 2016.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Jacob Gershman, “Judge Orders Terror Convicts to Undergo Experimental Deradicalization Review,” The Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2016.

[ix] Stephen Montemayor, “German Expert Says One ISIL Defendant Poses a Risk of Re-Offending,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, September 20, 2016; Laura Yuen, “2 Men Convicted of ISIS-Related Charges Ask for Rehabilitation,” MPR, June 30, 2016.

[x] Stephen Montemayor, “Deradicalization Expert Concludes Testimony in Minnesota ISIL Case Evaluations,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, September 21 2016.

[xi] All Things Considered, “German Program Helps Families De-Radicalize Members Prone to Extremism,” National Public Radio, March 13, 2015.

[xii] Forliti, “Federal Court in Minnesota Creates Deradicalization Program.”

[xiii] HAYAT-Deutschland, “HAYAT-Germany,”

[xiv] Daniel Koehler, “Family Counseling, De-Radicalization and Counter-Terrorism: The Danish and German Programs in Context,” in Countering Violent Extremism: Developing an Evidence-Base for Policy and Practice, ed. Sarah Ziegler and Anne Aly (Perth: Curtin University, 2015), 131.

[xv] Koehler, “Family Counseling, De-Radicalization and Counter-Terrorism,” 129-136.

[xvi] Ibid, 133.

[xvii] Ibid, 134.

[xviii] All Things Considered, “German Program Helps Families De-Radicalize Members Prone to Extremism.”

[xix] Forliti, “Federal Court in Minnesota Creates Deradicalization Program.”

[xx] Nicole Hong, “Judge Tries New Approach With Terror Defendants: Deradicalization,” The Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2016.

[xxi] Montemayor, “Deradicalization Expert Concludes Testimony”; Montemayor, “Deradicalization Expert Concludes Testimony in Minnesota ISIL Case Evaluations.”

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii]Lorenzo Vidino and Seamus Hughes, “ISIS in America: Retweets of Raqqa,” Program on Extremism, December 1, 2015; “GW Extremism Tracker: ISIS in America,” Program on Extremism, September 29, 2016.

[xxiv] Peter Bergen, Albert Ford, Alyssa Sims, and David Sterman, “Terrorism in America After 9/11: Part I. Terrorism Cases: 2001-Present,” New America Foundation, September 20, 2016.

[xxv] U.S. Department of Justice, “Three Florida Men Charged with Conspiring and Attempting to Provide Material Support to ISIL,” Office of Public Affairs Press Release, July 22, 2016.

[xxvi] The two cases are Adam Shafi and Abdul Raheem Ali-Skelton. Nicole Hong, “Judge Tries New Approach with Terror Defendants: Deradicalization,” The Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2016; Montemayor, “Deradicalization Expert Concludes Testimony.”

[xxvii] Amy Forliti, “Federal Court in Minnesota Creates Deradicalization Program,” The Associated Press, March 3, 2016.

[xxviii] James C. Howell, “Gang Prevention: An Overview of Research and Programs,” Juvenile Justice Bulletin U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, December 2010,

[xxix] Institute for Strategic Dialogue, “Countering Violent Extremism: Understanding the Role of Former Extremists and Counter Messaging,”; Peter R. Neumann, “Victims, Perpetrators, Assets: The Narratives of Islamic State Defectors,” International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation,” 2015.

One thought on “The Birth of Terrorist Deradicalization Programming in the U.S.?

  1. Interesting article but de-radicalising the far right and de-radicalising Islamist extremists requires very different skill sets. Britain has been down this road for some time and much can and should be learned from the UK’s top tier of ‘Interventionists’ as the US develops its fledgling derad programme.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.