Abdullahi Yusuf was having an identity crisis. Culturally marooned between home life with his traditional Somali parents and immersion in his everyday American school life in Minnesota, the Muslim teen gradually found his way to terrorist propaganda online.
In 2014, Yusuf was arrested before he could board a plane at Minneapolis airport, heading off to Syria to join Isis.
He had become part of a rare but not entirely unfamiliar pattern in which children of some immigrant families in North America and Europe feel alienated from society and a small but concerning few turn to jihad.
It was almost too late for Yusuf. But his story has had an unusual outcome.
In this extraordinary case, he is being integrated back into society after being sentenced to a unique “ideological rehab” program. He has spent the last year in a federal halfway house, reading philosophy, biography and literature, writing essays and poetry and reflecting on his life, his choices and his future. He was encouraged to debate with mentors and Muslim community leaders.
His ideological rehab program was devised by a not-for-profit group in Minneapolis called Heartland Democracy, which specializes in civic engagement courses, particularly for alienated youth. He read and discussed the works of Sherman Alexie, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and the French philosopher Michel Foucault, trying to work through barriers, both mental and societal, to a sense of place in the community.
“Ideological rehab is astonishingly difficult to do in practice and requires one-on-one focus; it’s not just flicking a switch in the mind,” said John Horgan, professor of global studies and psychology at Georgia State University. “But there’s an urgent need for early intervention and alternatives to prison, because we’re losing the battle to prevent people becoming involved in terrorism.”