US midwestern states shaken by influence of Islamic State
Dearth of de-radicalisation programmes despite despite ‘rehab for terrorists’ successes
A fighter with the Syrian Democratic Forces takes aim with his Kalashnikov after seeing a man walking towards his position in Baghouz, in eastern Syria. Photograph: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images
Islamic State may be on the brink of defeat in Syria, but its ideology remains a potent recruitment tool. In the American midwest, a region that has proved fertile ground for the terror group and other extremist recruiters, communities and law enforcement officials face a new challenge: dealing with returning jihadists and dozens of extremists due for release from prison in the coming years.
According to the programme on extremism run by George Washington University in the US capital, Minnesota and Ohio make up two of the three US states with the highest per capita rate of individuals travelling to join Islamic State, also known as Isis.
The attraction to the terror group remains a worry for US authorities. Last October, 19-year-old Naser Almadoaji, an Iraqi-born US citizen from Dayton, Ohio, was arrested while attempting to board an aircraft to Kazakhstan, from where he planned to cross into Afghanistan and join up with an Islamic State affiliate group.
Almadoaji, who attended a school in the suburban district of Beavercreek until 2015 and worked at a local supermarket, also attempted to make contact with an unnamed terrorist group after travelling to Egypt and Jordan last year.
A Somali refugee was shot dead in the state capital, Columbus, after staging a car and knife attack that was later claimed by Islamic State
Laith Alebbini (28), also from Dayton, was arrested before attempting to fly to Syria in April 2017. Prosecutors say Alebbini has since been open about his support for Islamic State.
“Frankly, the threat of international terrorism is something that is present in Dayton, in the southern district of Ohio and throughout the country,” Ben Glassman, the US attorney for the southern district of Ohio, told reporters in December. Contacted by phone, several people involved with the local Muslim community in Dayton refused to comment on whether radicalisation was a concern among their community.
Ohio has experienced several Islamic State-related attacks and near misses in recent years. In November 2016, a Somali refugee was shot dead in the state capital, Columbus, after staging a car and knife attack that was later claimed by Islamic State.
A month later, a 20-year-old Islamic State sympathiser from Cincinnati was sentenced to 30 years in prison after buying automatic rifles and ammunition that police officers say he planned to use to attack government targets in Washington DC. At least eight people from Ohio have been charged with attempting to travel to Syria or Iraq to join Islamic State, and one, Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud from Columbus, returned with plans to conduct a terrorist attack.
Minnesota, a largely rural state bordering Canada, has the highest per-capita rate of individuals in any US state travelling to join extremist groups in Syria, Iraq and Somalia. In November 2017, a 20-year-old man stabbed and badly injured two people at a mall in Bloomington, Minnesota. The perpetrator, Mahad Abdiraham, said his actions were to “answer the call of jihad.” Abdiraham received a 15-year jail term but may be eligible for release in 2026.
Minnesota is home to the first de-radicalisation programme in the country, the Minnesota Extremist Disengagement Program
More than 40 per cent of those who left the US to join extremist groups such as Islamic State and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the former al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, remain unaccounted for, and while President Donald Trump has called on European countries to repatriate Islamic State fighters from Syria, he has refused to allow American extremists, such as Hoda Muthana, a 24-year-old woman from Alabama, return to the US.
Some “rehab for terrorists” successes have been recorded. Minnesota is home to the first de-radicalisation programme in the country, the Minnesota Extremist Disengagement Program, which works with defendants formerly involved with foreign and American terrorist organisations but who are deemed fit for temporary release before sentencing.
Of 30 people charged with involvement with foreign terrorist organisations in the district, 12 were deemed suitable to take part in the programme. Of those 12, 10 completed it successfully. While the number of participants is too few to definitively call it a success, its results are promising.
“The vast majority [of radicalised Minnesotans] are males in their late teens on through to early to mid-20s,” says Kevin Lowry, Minnesota’s former chief federal probation officer and the architect of the programme. In many cases those involved would have started looking at or been exposed to radicalisation materials in their mid-teens, he says.
Many, Lowry says, are second-generation immigrants whose parents work multiple jobs. “I think that they’ve been targeted by [the east African-based terror group] al-Shabaab [but] the number of these cases is minuscule when you’re looking at a community [of Somali immigrants in Minnesota] upwards of 100,000 people.”
Still, the dearth of de-radicalisation programmes is concerning for many. About 80 people convicted of terrorist-related crimes are set for release from US prisons in the coming five years. No disengagement programmes exist in American prisons for ex-jihadists, and funding, Lowry says, is hugely lacking.
Judges in Minnesota and Ohio have been forced to place individuals convicted of terrorist-related offences in halfway houses or delay their sentencing because, upon their release, there are insufficient facilities to help with their specific reintegration needs.