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German expert says de-radicalizing radicals can work in US

MINNEAPOLIS — A German expert who evaluated six Minnesota men who pleaded guilty to trying to join the Islamic State group has developed counselling plans for each of them aimed at keeping them off the path of violence. He has also trained 20 to 25 local probation officers in his techniques.

Daniel Koehler, who directs the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies in Stuttgart, sat down with a small group of reporters Wednesday to discuss his work. He was joined by the chief U.S. probation officer for Minnesota, Kevin Lowry. Here are some highlights:

DOES DE-RADICALIZATION WORK?

Koehler said it can if offenders are willing, but he acknowledged there's insufficient data for reliably calculating recidivism rates because the number of cases is too low. He also noted there's a risk that people going through the program will simply lie and tell authorities what they want to hear.

But he said his program is designed to safeguard against that because his specific counselling recommendations for each subject are confidential, even from the offenders. And he said he's trained probation officers in how to fine-tune the counselling "almost like a medication."

Most terrorism offenders will get out of prison eventually, but if there's no intervention in the meantime they'll get more sophisticated about weapons and violence, they'll radicalize others in prison, and they'll emerge angrier and more committed to their cause, he said.

"Not working with individuals, from my perspective, is always the worst decision," he said.

CAN U.S. AUTHORITIES SUCCESSFULLY IMPLEMENT IT?

Lowry said they can. He said it's not that different from the work probation officers do already — monitoring people, imposing conditions, instituting rehabilitation programs and protecting the community.

He said 85 per cent of what they do with offenders every day will be the same, while 15 per cent will focus on de-radicalization, implementing Koehler's process to mitigate risks to the community and rehabilitate the participants.

WILL IT BE DONE ELSEWHERE IN THE U.S.?

Minnesota is the first place in the U.S. to try it. Koehler said the U.S. is 16 to 20 years behind Europe but can catch up quickly. Authorities in other states are now closely watching to see what happens in Minneapolis, he said.

Koehler said he has been contacted by people in seven other states for assessment studies since U.S. District Judge Michael Davis first announced he was considering the idea, but that they've mostly been defence lawyers and public defenders so far.

De-radicalization programs can take many forms, he said. Public-private partnerships work very well in Europe, he said. The process can start in prison but then nonprofits can be brought in for mentoring. Civil society groups can also play an important role before law enforcement needs to step in, he said.

HOW WILL THE PROGRAM AFFECT CURRENT AND PAST TERROR CASES?

Judge Davis, who sought out Koehler's help, said Tuesday that his recommendations will be just part of the information he'll use when he hands down sentences in November for the six defendants. Each faces up to 15 years in prison, but they've co-operated with authorities to varying degrees.

Lowry's office supervises offenders after they get out of prison, but he said his office will be working with prison officials. Specialized treatment and evaluation while they're incarcerated "will be critical for our success when they come out on supervision," he said.

A Bureau of Prisons representative has taken part in the local training sessions, Koehler said.

Lowry pointed out that the federal courts in Minnesota have already handled around 21 cases involving supporters of the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab. He said some of those convicted are now on supervised release, and their probation officers are already using Koehler's training.

WHAT'S IT COSTING?

Lowry, whose office is paying Koehler's bills, declined to say due to contracting rules but added that it's "commensurate" with what he pays for other professional services.