MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The U.S. government may have a new way of dealing with terrorism suspects - rehabilitation. A judge in Minnesota is considering that in a number of cases involving young Somalis who allegedly wanted to travel to Syria to join the self-proclaimed Islamic State. He told five of them yesterday he was willing to consider transferring them from jail to a halfway house if they participated in some sort of rehabilitation program. If that happens, it would be a dramatic shift in the way terrorism suspects are handled in this country. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston joins us now. And Dina, tell us more, please, about these five Somali defendants there.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, all five of them were young Minnesota men, and they appeared in separate hearings in Minneapolis. And as you said, they were all accused of trying to go to Syria to join ISIS. They were all friends from the Twin Cities, and none of them had criminal records before this happened.
Minnesota's chief judge, a man named Michael Davis, told each of them that he was open to considering something less restrictive than jail time while they await trial if their lawyers could come up with a creative solution. So one lawyer, for example, suggested a halfway house and having elders in the Somali community keep tabs on his client. And the big surprise isn't just that the judge suggested this; the big surprise was that government prosecutors said they were willing to consider this, too, because usually these kinds of suspects are seen as too dangerous for release.
BLOCK: And Dina, if the prosecutors are willing to consider that, that would indicate an evolution into the U.S. government's thinking about this.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. What this really is is an experiment to try something new in these ISIS cases. The fact that Judge Davis said this to five different defendants is really unusual, because so far, rehab has been suggested in just one U.S. terrorism case. That was also a Minneapolis case, and it involved a 19-year-old named Abdullahi Yusuf. And we reported on his case in the past. He pleaded guilty to charges related to his attempt to join ISIS and was offered a similar sort of rehab deal. But then just last week, his case had a setback.
BLOCK: And what was that setback?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yusuf was returned to jail for allegedly violating the terms of his release. But we understand that Yusuf's return to prison may be just a hiccup and not an end to this experiment.
BLOCK: And why is that? Why would this just be a hiccup and not an end to this experiment that you're talking about?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, because authorities don't appear to be closing the door on his rerelease. I don't know exactly what he did, but officials close to the case cautioned me not to read too much into this. If you know anything about halfway houses, you know that it's very common for prisoners to go back to jail for tiny infractions only to find themselves back in the halfway house again a short time later. Now, they haven't ruled that out in Abdullahi Yusuf's case, so we'll just have to wait and see.
That said, more broadly, the reason these cases are so important is because so many young Americans seem to be leaving for ISIS that it's becoming increasingly clear to authorities that the U.S. can't just incarcerate their way out of this problem. They need to find new solutions, and these kinds of programs are a step in that direction.
BLOCK: OK. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. Dina, thanks.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.
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