DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The FBI has opened investigations into ISIS recruitment across the country - in all 50 U.S. states, actually. And this has raised so many difficult questions. Like, why would an American teenager try to join ISIS? And once he's made that decision, is there any chance of saving him? Those questions are at the heart of Abdullahi Yusuf's story. Yusuf was about to board a plane to go from Minneapolis to Syria in 2014 when authorities stopped him.
ABDULLAHI YUSUF: The FBI came and said, Abdullahi, we need to talk to you. And they're like, you're not flying today.
GREENE: He did not fly that day. And he ended up becoming the first person in America to go through an experimental jihadi rehab program. Dina Temple-Raston is a former NPR reporter who spent years reporting this story, and she's back to tell us a more complete story of this young man. Dina sat down with Yusuf for a series of exclusive interviews as part of a new podcast she's hosting that's called "What Were You Thinking." It looks at adolescent decision-making. Dina is with us now.
Dina, welcome back.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Thank you very much.
GREENE: You spent several years reporting on Somali-Americans in Minnesota who were being recruited by terrorist groups. And we aired your stories, including about this young man - right? - Abdullahi Yusuf. But what did you actually learn from sitting down with him face-to-face?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, he was part of the biggest ISIS recruitment and conspiracy trial we've ever had in the U.S. Eleven young men in the Twin Cities were involved. So I wanted to understand why these young men were attracted to the group. For example, we keep hearing about ISIS videos radicalizing young people. And Yusuf explains exactly how it affected him - how they seemed to tell him that he had the ability to change things in Syria if he just went there to fight.
YUSUF: I was mesmerized, you know, like - it was like, if you don't like it, go do something about it, and here's why you should go do something about it. And it was just, check, check, check, check, that's me, that's me, that's me, that's me. And, you know, sign me up.
GREENE: Sign me up, Dina. It sounds like he made this decision so quickly.
TEMPLE-RASTON: It was like a snap of the fingers. It took weeks, not months. He talks a lot about how he felt like he was the other in Minnesota, how he was living two lives. You know, on one hand, he's on the high school football team, which suggests he's pretty assimilated. But on the other, he was wondering about being a Somali in America - what his prospects were. And what I found out, from talking to him, is what ISIS offers is simple answers for all that.
And you have to remember that he was 17 at the time. And a lot of the Americans who are going to ISIS are really young. They aren't thinking about attacking the U.S. Instead, it's not so much about ideology. It's about adolescent decision-making. And I think there's a growing understanding about that in the court system, and that's why they're starting to look at alternatives to incarceration, like the program that Abdullahi Yusuf went through.
GREENE: Yeah, I want to hear more about that program. So you're saying the courts are beginning to think that in some cases, it is not a young person thinking, I'm going to become a terrorist and attack the United States. They might be going to try and help people improve their lives in the Syrian civil war or something like that.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. It - certainly less now than with what we know about ISIS, but at that time - and certainly for many young adolescent males - they think they're going to be heroes. And the program that Yusuf went through to try and talk to him about this wasn't about religion or a reinterpretation of Islam, which is what most of the overseas jihadi rehab programs focus on. Instead, partly because he was so young, his program really had to do a lot with critical thinking.
Research has shown that if you develop an adolescent's ability to question things critically, they tend to make better decisions. And reading can be a very powerful way of doing that. So what happened with Yusuf is that he worked with a nonprofit called Heartland Democracy, which works with at-risk kids and adults in the Twin Cities area. And they gave him reading to do while he was in jail, while he was awaiting sentencing - things like "Letters From Birmingham" (ph), Malcolm X's biography, the Native American writer Sherman Alexie and even a little philosophy from the French philosopher Foucault. This is him talking to me about that.
Do you like Foucault?
YUSUF: Yeah, he's smart.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And what do you like about him?
YUSUF: Just detail, right? Reading about being incarcerated while incarcerated is very...
TEMPLE-RASTON: Did he get it right?
GREENE: OK, Dina, so he spent two years in jail going through this program. What happened next?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, last year around this time, there was a court case in which three of Abdullahi Yusuf's friends were tried on terrorism charges as part of this recruitment ring. And he testified against them at trial, which was very controversial within the Somali-American community of Minneapolis. And then when it came to sentencing time, the federal judge in the case, Judge Michael Davis, just looked at Abdullahi Yusuf and said, I just don't see how prison will help this boy. He felt that Yusuf had changed.
So what he did is he gave him time served in jail plus a year in a halfway house and 20 years supervised release. And I think that's the first time that's happened with an admitted terrorist defendant in our country. And Abdullahi Yusuf has just finished his time in the halfway house. He finished that up a couple of weeks ago and was released. And there's a gag order on him now, but when he and I spoke, it was before that gag order had been imposed.
GREENE: Dina, this judge clearly found something compelling and optimistic about this young man's story. But anytime you talk about rehab for an admitted terrorist defendant - I mean, I could see a program like that having a lot of critics.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And again, this is not a widespread program. This is very much an experimental program. But you also have to understand that to have terrorism charges in some cases in this - in the United States, to be guilty of material support to a terrorist organization, all you have to do is decide that you want to go to Syria, buy a plane ticket and have the intention of possibly joining a group like ISIS.
And there's a lot of naivete that's wrapped around this because - particularly at the time that Abdullahi went, he didn't really know what ISIS was about. He said that to me over and over again in interviews, that he thought that they were there fighting Assad. Everyone agreed that Assad was a bad guy, so he was going to fight with this group that does that.
Now, since that time, we've clearly had a real change in ISIS. They declared a caliphate. They beheaded journalists. They killed untold numbers of Muslims. So I would be surprised if this kind of program would necessarily be used for people who now believe that ISIS is a group that they want to join. But in those early days, before everyone understood what ISIS was, maybe a rehab program - at least in Abdullahi Yusuf's case - was the right remedy.
GREENE: All right, Dina Temple-Raston, it was great to hear your reporting as a colleague. It's great to hear your reporting now. It's great to catch up. Thanks a lot.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Thanks, David. Take care.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOULAR ORDER'S "REMOVE ALL ATTACHMENTS")
GREENE: Dina Temple-Raston's new podcast is called "What Were You Thinking." It looks at adolescent decision-making. And in addition to ISIS, Dina looks at hacking, gaming addiction, suicide and school shooters. The first episode is available now if you go to audible.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.