Abdullahi Yusuf stayed up late into the night, passing around slices of pizza and watching violent training videos with his teenage friends. The Somali-American boy from Minnesota was consumed by images of suffering Syrians. He was unsure whether or not he belonged in America, but certain he wanted to fight the Assad regime in Syria. On May 28, 2014, Abdullahi hugged his father tightly as he was dropped off at school, convinced that this might be their last embrace. A few hours later, 18-year-old Abdullahi stood at the airport, ready to board a plane to Istanbul. He was ready to join ISIS.
Radicalization is occurring in the United States at alarming rates and violent extremists continue to target youth. In 2017, the FBI had over 1,000 active investigations underway against potential domestic terrorists. It is imperative that the U.S. invests in community-led efforts to address adolescent radicalization and violence. Funding should address all forms of violent extremism since anti-government, white supremacist and neo-Nazi extremists are responsible for 73 percent of all homegrown attacks.
Non-coercive intervention programs are necessary for youth who show signs of radicalization. Individualized interventions can ensure that specific needs are uniquely addressed. Community-generated counter-narrative campaigns are also needed to challenge and debunk the false-allure of violent extremism. Instead of dull religious messaging, counter-messaging efforts should amplify the personal stories of defectors, promote social inclusion, aim to reach marginalized individuals, and provide alternative, non-violent heroes. To disrupt engagement, we must also work to prevent socialization into violent extremist movements and provide alternative ways to address personal and political grievances.
There are no quick fixes. Past intervention efforts have been deeply flawed, identifying and labeling individuals as “threats” and unfairly stereotyping and spying upon entire communities. Given these past failures and genuine concerns about future endeavors, law enforcement officers should not lead engagement efforts and safeguards must be implemented to ensure that intervention programs do not become vehicles for intelligence gathering.
We must move beyond a criminal justice-centric approach and move beyond the Muslim community. Local community groups must work with diverse populations to tackle all forms of violent extremism. The Department of Homeland Security should award more grants to community-led initiatives that work directly with youth. These interventions need to be personalized, to transform the radical views of specific individuals rather than seeking to change entire communities.
In the case of Abdullahi Yusuf, FBI agents managed to stop the teenager at the airport. They informed him that he would not be permitted to travel abroad, as he had planned. Abdullahi pled guilty to trying to provide material support to ISIS. He was sent to a halfway house and sentenced by a federal judge to a unique ‘ideological rehab’ program. Rather than scrolling through terrorist propaganda online, Yusuf began reflecting on the words of Martin Luther King Jr. He was introduced to the U.S. Constitution and the autobiography of Malcolm X. Visions of taking up arms in Syria were soon replaced with dreams of attending college.
During Abdullahi’s rehabilitation program he penned a poem. Here are just a few of his poignant words:
I am an alleged terrorist.
I am not sure how that makes me feel…
I am Somali…
I am Muslim. I am black.
I am this. I am that.
I am sure of one thing for a fact:
I am a human.
Violent extremists thrive by sowing discord. They reinforce “Us” vs. “Them” narratives, dehumanize the “Other” and seek to strip the world of moral complexity. In the fight against domestic terrorism, we need more than police, prosecutions, and prison. We need the perception of mothers, the wisdom of trauma-informed counselors, and the guidance of mentors. Prison cannot mend minds bruised and bent by seductive stories of hate. We cannot afford to abandon our young people, those who are most vulnerable to violent extremist messaging.
Youth who are at risk of radicalization can be reached. Youth who have radicalized can be rehabilitated.