MINNEAPOLIS – Attorneys for a man accused of trying to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State group are proposing that he be freed pending trial if he promises to participate in courses that promote civic involvement.
The defense came up with the idea after U.S. District Judge Michael Davis said in December he would consider releasing Abdullahi Yusuf if there was a plan for Somali elders and community leaders to help monitor his actions. The defense proposal requires that Yusuf participate in a program by the nonprofit group Heartland Democracy aimed at helping disaffected young people connect with their communities.
A hearing is scheduled for Friday in federal court in Minneapolis.
Yusuf, of Inver Grove Heights, is charged with conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. He was arrested in November, six months after FBI agents stopped him at the Minneapolis airport as he was attempting to leave the United States for Turkey.
Federal prosecutors previously argued against his pretrial release, saying Yusuf deceived his parents before and could do so again. When asked if the U.S. Attorney's Office would oppose the defense's latest proposal, spokesman Ben Petok said prosecutors would respond in court Friday.
Authorities say a handful of Minnesota residents have traveled to Syria, which borders Turkey, to fight with militants within the last year. Since 2007, at least 22 young Somali men have also traveled from Minnesota to Somalia to join the terrorist group al-Shabab.
Somalis in the Minneapolis area have tried to stop the recruiting with strong anti-terror messages and programs aimed at creating opportunities. The U.S. Attorney's Office is also participating in a pilot program designed to engage young people.
The program proposed by Yusuf's defense team is slightly different. Defense attorney Jean Brandl said she believes it will help her client but could also be used by others.
Mary McKinley, executive director of Heartland Democracy, said the program's curriculum, called Empowering U, has been used in other settings with young people who feel disconnected from society. Typically, teachers called "coaches" get young people to identify values and then try to connect those values with community issues and government. For example, she said, after one group of teens identified litter as a problem, Empowering U connected them with high school groups who sponsored a block.
"This is trying to tie them very specifically to their community by teaching them how their community works," she said. "We feel, especially in a democracy, you have to have some sense of how things work to feel like it will work for you. If you don't feel like it's working for you, you will check out."
McKinley said her group hasn't worked with someone involved in a terrorism case.
"This would be a real experiment, honestly," McKinley said. She said her group doesn't view Yusuf as an extremist: "We're going to take him as a lost kid like any other lost kid."
Maki Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, was skeptical. She said programs like Heartland Democracy's may have had some success in rehabilitating gang members, but it's harder "to steer away people who are believers in some sort of higher cause."
"Trying to reprogram somebody who is attracted to all these extreme beliefs by telling them democracy is superior is a little bit naive," she said.