When federal agents stopped 18-year-old Abdullahi Yusuf at the Minneapolis airport last May he had a ticket to Istanbul, Turkey. The Somali-American teen had gotten a passport just a few weeks earlier. He hadn’t told his father where he was going. But the Federal Bureau of Investigation believed he wanted to join terrorist fighters battling the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.
And that, the U.S. government says, is against the law. In November, federal prosecutors charged Yusuf with conspiracy to support a terrorist organization, a felony charge that could have landed him in jail for 15 years or more.
It was the latest in a line of terror charges that U.S. officials have used in an attempt to stem the alarming number of Americans—Somali or otherwise—seeking to join foreign terrorist organizations like Al-Shabab, in Somalia, or more recently, the so-called Islamic State group in Syria.
But this week a federal judge sentenced Yusuf not to a long prison term, but to a halfway house, and a program to try and integrate him back into the community.
As the Obama Administration continues to grapple with ways to keep Americans from being radicalized and joining terror groups, Yusuf’s case may be harbinger, or a signal of a shift in thinking about the problem, experts say.
“I mean, I was like, gosh, wow. I just was really surprised to see it, on the other hand, I’m really encouraged by it,” said John Horgan, director of the Center for Terrorism & Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. “It’s very risky, because someone’s going to have to take responsibility should something go wrong. (But) this represents a very brave step. This is what community-based counterterrorism is all about.”
Minnesota’s Minneapolis-St. Paul region has been a focus of “counter-radicalization” efforts for years now. That’s because beginning in late 2007, Somali American men began traveling to Somalia to join the radical Islamist group Al-Shabab in its fight against the secular, U.N.-backed government, and Ethiopian troops. At least 22 young men ended up there; some were killed in fighting; others returned to the United States and faced criminal terrorism charges.
The young men were a tiny proportion of the Somali American community in Minnesota, the largest of its kind in the United States, but it heightened scrutiny, and distrust.
As part of the effort to stop the flow, federal and local police waged a serious campaign of surveillance, investigation and, many Somalis say, intimidation that ended up alienating the community. The decision in 2010 to charge two women who collected clothing and money for Al-Shabab with federal terrorism charges was for many the last straw.
Support for Shabab has waned in recent years for different reasons. At the same time, in the past 12-16 months, there’s been an uptick in men—and women—seeking to travel to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State militants who aim to build an Islamic state known as a caliphate there.
U.S. officials have estimated more than 100 Americans have traveled there, a number that includes at least a dozen ethnic Somalis.
Among those who went was Abdi Nur, who, prosecutors say, made his plans in conjunction with Yusuf, including shopping at a suburban Minneapolis mall. Nur left the United States the day after Yusuf was stopped by FBI agents. He was charged in November with an additional charge of providing material support for terrorists.
Other evidence cited by prosecutors in charging Yusuf were Facebook posts he had made, and messages he had exchanged with another Somali man from Minnesota who had traveled to Syria some seven weeks earlier.
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger of Minnesota, who has overseen many of the terrorism-related cases involving Somalis, has also helped spearhead efforts to rebuild bridges with the Somali community, meeting repeatedly with religious leaders, elders and community activists and asking for help.
But he opposed the lenient sentence. A spokesman, Ben Petok, declined to explain further, saying the case was still pending.
Luger is also one of three federal prosecutors scheduled to attend at a major conference next month at the White House, to discuss ways to stop radicalization and recruitment for terrorist groups.
Peter Erlinder, a St. Paul lawyer who previously represented Yusuf, said it was too early to say whether the sentence was a clear change in policy.
But, he said, “it’s a reflection of an apparent change in attitude with respect to this particular defendant.”
“If it’s a change in policy nationally, so much the better because there’s been too much overcharging, too much creation of crimes that weren’t crimes at all and this case comes very much close to that,” he said.
For some Somalis, however, the lenient sentence handed to Yusuf in fact sent the wrong message, according to Abdirazak Bihi, a Minnesota community activist whose nephew traveled to Somalia in 2008 and later was killed there, possibly trying to escape from Al-Shabab militants.
“A lot of people are worried the government is getting soft on this. Everyone is getting angry about this,” he said. “People want the government to be tough, and send a real message on this.”