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The largest ISIS recruitment trial in the U.S. continues this week in Minneapolis. Three men in their early 20s are fighting terrorism charges. One young man testifying for the prosecution is getting particular attention. He's not only providing a rare, behind-the-scenes account of radicalization in the U.S. He's also enrolled in a jihadi de-radicalization program which is the first in this country. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston spoke exclusively with his counselor and reports on the program.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: I met Ahmed Amin in a Minneapolis hotel restaurant, and the best way to describe him is to say he'd remind you of that favorite teacher you had in high school - the young one who let the class meet outside on sunny days. And that makes sense because...
AHMED AMIN: My day-to-day job - I'm a social studies teacher at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Amin also works as a counselor at a Minneapolis nonprofit called Heartland Democracy, and he was hired more than a year ago to work...
AMIN: As a Somali educator, to work with Abdullahi Yusuf specifically.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Abdullahi Yusuf may be the most famous Minnesotan you've never heard of. He was arrested for attempting to travel to Syria to join ISIS. He was just 18 at the time. Then, months later, he pleaded guilty to terrorism charges and was allowed to enter America's first jihadi rehab program. Ahmed Amin is trying to help him understand why ISIS attracted him in the first place.
AMIN: Initially, I wanted him to read some text that would get him to really question his own personal views, to question his understanding of the world and sort of maybe how he thought.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Abdullahi Yusuf has been reading essays on isolation by Sherman Alexis and writing papers about French philosopher Michel Foucault's ideas about prisons and power in society.
AMIN: So I just thought it would be critical for him to really read Foucault on the Penopticon while he's in prison because I think that's going to change his perspective. I think it's just introducing him to many different texts that could really challenge how he thinks and sees the world.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yusuf's papers are often the basis of his counseling sessions with Amin.
AMIN: So we try to give him as much work that gets him to be critical about who he is in hopes of finding out what really led him to do this. I think that's the first step - is for him to really have an answer as to why he did what he did.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Abdullahi Yusuf started providing some clues about why he did what he did last week during his testimony for the prosecution. He alleges it began with dinner with some friends at a local Somali restaurant. Then there was a pickup basketball game and then a discussion about politics and Syria. One of his friends opened up an ISIS YouTube channel, and they all watched the ISIS battle videos until 2 in the morning.
Yusuf now realizes, he said, it was that Friday night in 2014 that his recruitment to ISIS began. And he alleges that the men on trial were the ones who did it. This ISIS case has rocked Minneapolis.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Chanting) What do we want?
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Justice.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Chanting) When do we want it?
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Now.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI introduced a confidential informant in the case. Now parents of the accused say their sons were entrapped.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Chanting) Somali youth are under attack. What do we do?
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Stand up. Fight back.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Somali youth are under attack, one chant outside the courtroom goes. Because all the men involved in the case are so young - in their early 20s - there's been a push to develop a program that helps people disengage from ISIS and maybe to prevent young men from being attracted to the group in the first place. Again, Ahmed Amin...
AMIN: You know, these are really young kids, and you know, I just - in my heart, I really believe that they fell for something, you know? And they just - they need a chance to correct it, you know, to undo what they did.
TEMPLE-RASTON: U.S. District Court Judge Michael J. Davis is presiding over the ISIS trial, and he's hired a German radicalization expert named Daniel Koehler to assess the men who have already pleaded guilty in the case. And while he wouldn't discuss exactly what he's found, he did tell me he thought some of the young men involved, though not all of them, could be helped with counseling. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Minneapolis.
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