German social science on the case

Last week’s Star Tribune reports that Two Minneapolis men convicted on ISIL charges seek ‘deradicalization’ review.” Those “Minneapolis men”? They are Guled Omar and Abdirahman Daud, found guilty of terrorism charges by the jury in Minneapolis on June 3. What is a “‘deradicalization’ review”? That is a tricker question.

On March 2, Judge Davis ordered the federal probation office tasked with the standard presentence investigation to contract with Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies (GIRDS), to prepare a presentence report on the six defendants who had pleaded guilty to terrorism charges in the case. Dr. Koehler has made a house call in Minneapolis on all six of the defendants who pleaded guilty. Montemayor reports in the linked Star Tribune article that the six defendants “have undergone studies aimed at recommending intervention needs for ‘deradicalization of defendants involved in terrorism cases.’”

Koehler’s reports have not yet been filed and no defendant has been sentenced. Now two of the three who were convicted last month seek a visit with Dr. Koehler. He will apparently be making another house call in Minneapolis.

Under the experimental “Terrorism Disengagement and Deradicalization Program” adopted by Judge Davis, Koehler is (take a breath) to “provide information to the Court that is otherwise not available to it as a basis for determining the sentence of a defendant convicted of a terrorism offense and to provide purposeful pre-trial and post-incarceration supervision that ensures public safety by monitoring defendants to verify they have not reverted to involvement with terroristic activities and to further the process of disengagement and deradicalization from extremist ideology while rehabilitating them to become successful, law-abiding citizens.”

The substance and procedure for imposing a sentence under federal law are set forth in 18 U.S.C § 3553. Punishment and deterrence are the leading criteria. In determining an appropriate sentence, however, federal judges have discretion to seek out and apply any relevant data.

Judge Davis now looks to Koehler to provide information for the purpose of determining the sentence to be imposed in these cases. In a press briefing, Judge Davis explained his rationale for adopting the GIRDS strategy: “It does not make sense why someone who’s never been involved in any type of criminal activity, was not seriously religious, [would] in a very short period of time want to go over and be involved in jihad.”

Having heard the evidence introduced by the government against the three defendants who contested the charges at trial, Judge Davis has at least a partial answer to his question. Growing up Muslim in the Twin Cities, attending local mosques, receiving Islamic education, supplemented by a diet of ISIS videos appear to be all it took.

Judge Davis himself took up the question with Abdirizak Warsame in the course of his testimony as a cooperating witness at trial. “You understood that if you committed jihad you would die,” the judge observed. “What attracted you to that?”

“The reward you would get and the fact that this life is temporary,” Warsame said. “If you were to go sacrifice yourself and go fight in jihad, the reward would be bigger. You’d save your family and save yourself.”

What’s Dr. Koehler got for that? I’d like to know.

Former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy prosecuted the blind sheikh and his co-conspirators for the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. Andy brings an informed if skeptical attitude to Judge Davis’s experimental program. “The problem arises,” he told me, “when judges use dubious social science theories as a substitute for the traditional purposes of sentencing—incapacitating bad actors for a period of time that fits the crime while discouraging recidivism and communicating to other potential offenders that the conduct will be treated seriously.” Andy adds that “if the German program is willing to confront the fact that a mainstream interpretation of Islam fuels the radicalism and believes this can be countered by a construction of Islam that rejects violent jihadism, this would be helpful. Of course, if this irenic Islam is not credible (i.e., if it does not convincingly answer the literalist interpretation rooted in scripture), it will be of limited usefulness.”

Andy observes that “deradicalization” is not a proven science: “The Saudis, for example, have long run such programs for their own and our terrorist detainees, and there is a high recidivism rate.” On balance, Andy says, “I think there could be a place for deradicalization in sentencing, but not in the initial phase when the judge imposes sentence because that would necessarily involve a prospective calculation on the judge’s part that the science is proven and the particular defendant will have a positive outcome—things that are either not settled or not knowable.”

One doubts that German social science holds the answers Judge Davis seeks. Last week’s Wall Street Journal — see “After an attack, Germans question efforts to dissuade young Islamists,” in which Koehler makes a cameo appearance — presents a case study in the failure of the social science. The Wall Street Journal article can be accessed here via Google.

At the least, skeptical questions might fairly be raised about Judge Davis’s two-page “Terrorism Disengagement and Deradicalization Program.” None appears to have been raised by United States Attorney Andrew Luger; Luger has expressed his full support for the program. Judge Davis declined to be interviewed for the article I wrote about the program for the Weekly Standard this past March (and which I have used for this post). I renewed my request for an interview with Judge Davis this morning; Judge Davis continues to decline an interview prior to sentencing.

When the program was first announced, Warsame’s attorney, Robert Sicoli, summed up the case better than you’d expect. “My assessment of my guy is he is not a threat to anybody,” Sicoli told the Star Tribune earlier this year. Okay, that was about as expected. Here, however, I thought Sicoli was on to something: “I’m not an expert, but to be honest I don’t think there are any experts on this.”

UPDATE: Judge Davis denied the motion of the two defendants convicted at trial as moot. They will be evaluated on the “deradicalization” standards set forth in his order by court personnel trained by Koehler.