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Parents Speak Out, Say FBI Arrest Saved Son On Verge Of Joining ISIS

U.S. District Judge Michael Davis of Minneapolis allowed Abdullahi Yusuf to take part in a jihadi rehabilitation program after he pleaded guilty last year to a plan to join ISIS.
Jeff Baenen
U.S. District Judge Michael Davis of Minneapolis allowed Abdullahi Yusuf to take part in a jihadi rehabilitation program after he pleaded guilty last year to a plan to join ISIS.

Life changed as Sadiik Yusuf knew it about two years ago, when the FBI appeared at his front door in Minneapolis to tell him his son Abdullahi had been stopped at the airport, suspected of trying to board a flight that would take him to Syria to fight with ISIS.

"My job has always been to drop Abdullahi off at school and to pick him up," Sidiik told a group of community leaders last week during a meeting at the U.S. Attorney's Office. "But that day, around noon there was a knock on the door. It was the FBI and I was asked if I was Abdullahi's father and the FBI agents held out a picture."

That's how it all began for Sadiik Yusuf and his family: with a knock, a photograph, and the sudden realization that their son, now 20, was being lured to Syria by a shadowy group few at the time realized was targeting young Muslims in Minneapolis.

"As a family it was a very difficult day, it was a shocking and horrifying day," he said through an interpreter, speaking publicly for the first time about what his family has endured. NPR was the only news organization present.

The meeting where Yusuf spoke out is part of a a broader effort by the Justice Department to convince parents of young people who might be radicalizing not to keep the changes they are noticing to themselves. If they see something, they should say something.

Attempt To Curb Recruiting

Justice Department officials, like Minnesota's U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, are convening meetings like this to see if they can spark a grassroots push to curb ISIS recruiting efforts.

Law enforcement sources tell NPR that dozens of young people from the Somali community in Minneapolis have been lured by ISIS and have either left Minnesota, been stopped trying to leave, or are under investigation for possibly planning to do so.

The Yusufs are the first family in the community to speak publicly about the experience. And they are going a step further. They are asking parents in their position to tell authorities if they suspect kids are falling under ISIS' spell.

In a matter of months, Abdullahi Yusuf went from normal senior in high school to pleading guilty to wanting to help a terrorist group. He is still awaiting sentencing and is the only young man in America to have been enrolled in a jihadi rehabilitation program aimed at getting him to understand why he fell under ISIS' spell in the first place.

Given the turn of events, it wouldn't be surprising if Sadiik Yusuf and his family harbored resentment toward the people who have put his son behind bars. This is the twist: Yusuf is not angry. He went before the community to say he believed the FBI saved his boy's life.

"One hundred percent for sure, if he was not stopped or arrested that day he might not have lived today," the elder Yusuf told the group. "One hundred percent for sure."

Suspicion In Somali-American Community

As a general matter, the Somali-Americans in the Twin Cities are suspicious of the government's intentions. Some have told reporters that they believe the ISIS cases in Minnesota are drummed up, the result of aggressive FBI racial profiling and elaborate entrapment schemes.

Others say they don't believe terrorist are recruiting in the U.S. All this, in spite of the fact that earlier this year half a dozen young Somalis from the Twin Cities – including Sadiik's son – pleaded guilty to trying to go to Syria to join ISIS and a jury found three of their friends guilty of terrorism crimes related to their efforts to go and fight.

"Communities like the Somali community in Minneapolis have a history of troubled and distrustful relationships with law enforcement," says Quintan Wiktorowicz, one of the founders of Affinis Labs, a company that, among other things, works to counter violent extremism in communities. "So for one of the fathers and his family to come out in that kind of meeting is a very unique experience. It's important. There are a lot of possible lessons other families can glean from this.

Countering Extremism At Home

Counter-terrorism officials have come to the conclusion that the best way to defeat ISIS recruiters isn't on the battlefields of Syria, it is in communities in the U.S. That means that instead of rounding people up and arresting them, authorities are looking at alternatives to lengthy jail terms and testing prevention programs.

"This has got to be about more than identifying potential prosecutions," President Obama's top terrorism advisor, Lisa Monaco, told NPR. "If we don't have trusted relationships with communities there's no way a family, a brother, a sister, a coach, a teacher are going to be able to say, this kid looks like they are going down the wrong path, how do I help?"

Monaco says the Obama administration is stepping up funding for local programs that give parents, and kids, options before they go so far down the path of radicalization that bringing them back is more difficult.

Sadiik Yusuf, for his part, considers himself lucky. Two of his son's friends who managed to leave Minnesota to join ISIS have died fighting in Syria.

"Today [Abdullahi] lives within the Twin Cities. I visit him. I help him. The whole family helps him," his father tells the group. "Because he was stopped, because he was arrested, that is why he is alive today."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dina Temple-Raston
Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.