Islamic State US terror convicts pose dilemma after prison release

As convicted Islamic State supporters in the US serve their sentences, authorities are tackling a new challenge: what to do with them when they get out of prison.

Since 2014, more than 75 people have been arrested in the US on charges related to Islamic State, a terrorist group also known as ISIS or ISIL. Of the 25 individuals who have pleaded guilty, eight have been given prison sentences, while the rest will be sentenced in the coming months, according to Fordham Law School’s Centre on National Security. The cases of those who haven’t pleaded guilty are pending.

Some of those convicted could be exiting prison as early as 2017, raising the question of how to reintegrate them back into their communities across the US.

“What happens when these folks start getting out?” asked John Carlin, who heads the Justice Department’s national security division. “There are programs for drug addicts and gang members. There is not one with a proven track record of success for terrorism.”

The Bureau of Prisons said in a statement that inmates convicted on terror charges have the same opportunity to receive re-entry programming as other inmates, including drug treatment and faith-based programs.

For those convicted of terrorism-related charges who don’t receive life sentences, courts usually impose a period of supervised release under a probation officer after their prison sentence ends. That can include stipulations that bar them from holding a passport or possessing explosive materials.

But as part of the government’s broader initiative to “counter violent extremism,” the Justice Department and other agencies are exploring the possibility of creating special programs to help reintegrate inmates with terrorism-related charges, according to people involved in the discussions. A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment.

These types of programs haven’t been applied in the US, largely due to the relatively small number of convicted terrorists. More than 300 inmates with a connection to terrorism may have been released in the US since 2001, according to an analysis by Human Rights First, a New York non-profit group.

Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.), during a hearing of the U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence subcommittee in October, said more than 100 inmates in federal prison with links to terrorism would be released over the next five years. “We have never been faced with such large numbers of terror inmates before,” said Mr King, the chairman of the committee.

The first trials of alleged Islamic State supporters in the US are set to start this month. In federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y., jury selection began February 9 in the trial of Tairod Pugh, a 48-year-old US Air Force veteran accused of attempting to join the terrorist group overseas. Mr Pugh is pleading not guilty. In Arizona federal court, jury selection will begin tomorrow in the trial of Abdul Malik Abdul Kareem, who is accused of hosting and providing weapons to the two gunmen who died trying to attack people last May in Texas at an exhibit of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Mr. Kareem is pleading not guilty.

Most of the current Islamic State-related defendants are charged with “providing material support” to the terrorist group, which often means sending money to Islamic State or attempting to travel overseas to Syria, not committing violent crimes.

The federal material-support statute carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. But ​the eight people who have been sentenced after pleading guilty in Islamic State-related cases received an average sentence so far of more than nine years in prison, less than the average sentence of more than 15 years for the 297 convictions on “jihadist terror crimes” overall from 2001 to 2013, according to the Centre on National Security.

Experts say rehabilitating sympathisers of Islamic State is especially important because they are younger than typical terrorism defendants. The average age of those arrested is 26 years old, meaning many of them could be released in their 30s and 40s.

Almost 90% of the Islamic State-related defendants are US citizens or legal residents, so few will get deported after serving their sentences.

Some countries, including Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, have so-called deradicalization programs that seek to change the ideologies of terrorist inmates before releasing them back into society, sometimes with the help of former jihadists who have disengaged from violence. In Germany, deradicalization programs were started in 2000 to rehabilitate neo-Nazis and have since inspired similar programs for Islamic militants.

Some experts in the US are voicing concerns that government programs to change inmates’ belief systems will collide with civil liberties and freedom of religion. Singapore, which has a well-known deradicalization program, relies “a great deal on religious leaders to take this interventionist approach,” says Faiza Patel, co-director of the liberty and national security program at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York. “I don’t know how much the U.S. government could do that without running afoul of the First Amendment.”

Part of the challenge is figuring out whether the government or other organisations, such as community nonprofits, should take the leading role in creating these programs.

John Horgan, a professor at Georgia State University who studies terrorism, says deradicalization doesn’t necessarily mean modifying someone’s religious beliefs. He said there are at least 40 deradicalization programs outside the US. “In some countries, they place less emphasis on ideological reprogramming and more on vocational training,” he said.

Ms Patel says that while rehabilitation programs should exist for terrorism inmates, deradicalization programs in other countries haven’t proven to be effective.

“We know very little about how to measure the success of these programs,” said Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies in Stuttgart, Germany.

Another challenge in the US is the country’s geographic diversity. There aren’t enough specialists in jihadist rehabilitation to have a program in every federal district, but sending all of the inmates to one central location would separate them from their home communities and potentially create other unintended consequences, experts say.

The issue of re-entry into society has come up in a handful of cases. Last October in Chicago, 20-year-old Mohammed Hamzah Khan pleaded guilty to a material-support charge after attempting to travel to Syria to join Islamic State with his two younger siblings in 2014.

As part of his plea agreement, prosecutors recommended “violent extremism counselling” for him once he is out of prison. A counselling program would be chosen by the probation office, according to a spokesman for the Chicago U.S. attorney’s office. Mr Khan is scheduled to be sentenced in June.

At a bond hearing for Mr. Khan last April, his lawyer, Thomas Durkin, told the judge his client needs “proper counselling” on some “obviously misguided beliefs,” citing the government’s efforts to find community-based ways to counter violent extremism, which recently had been announced. While Mr Khan was in government custody for several months, he received no therapy, counselling or treatment, Mr. Durkin said.

“We can’t give up on these kids because they have bad thoughts,” he said.