MINNEAPOLIS — A Minnesota man accused of trying to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State group will be released to a halfway house while his case is pending, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
Abdullahi Yusuf, 18, will have limited hours outside the halfway house and will be monitored, Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis said. Davis also directed probation officials to work with a group that promotes civic involvement to see if they could fashion a plan to integrate Yusuf back into the community — perhaps leading to more freedom as time progresses.
"I have to see how he does," Davis said of Yusuf.
Yusuf is charged with conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. He was arrested in November, six months after FBI agents stopped him at the Minneapolis airport as he was attempting to leave the United States for Turkey.
Authorities say a handful of Minnesota residents have traveled to Syria, which borders Turkey, to fight with militants within the last year. Since 2007, at least 22 young Somali men have also traveled from Minnesota to Somalia to join the terrorist group al-Shabab.
Prosecutors opposed Yusuf's pre-trial release, saying they are concerned that he is a flight risk and could pose a danger.
Yusuf's attorneys asked that he be freed and allowed to participate in courses promoting civic involvement through a nonprofit organization called Heartland Democracy.
The idea hasn't been used before in Minnesota. The defense came up with the proposal after Davis said in December that he'd consider releasing Yusuf if there was a plan for Somali elders and community leaders to help monitor his actions.
Defense attorney Jean Brandl said in court Tuesday that she believes the program could be effectively tailored to Yusuf, and could be broadened for other young Somalis who may be inclined to leave the U.S.
Mary McKinley, executive director of Heartland Democracy, met with probation officials and Davis after Yusuf's hearing. She told reporters that Yusuf's case would be an experiment.
"We're taking very, very small steps," she said, later adding, "I completely understand this is a risk."
McKinley has said that the program's curriculum, Empowering U, has been used in other settings with young people who feel disconnected from society. Typically, teachers called "coaches" get young people to identify values and then try to connect those values with community issues and government.
In papers filed in court, McKinley said Yusuf's plan would include eventual enrollment in a community college, courses with his peers to explore issues they face, and possible opportunities coaching youth basketball — if Davis approves.
Brandl told Davis that her client and other young Somalis feel caught between two worlds: They speak English, use cellphones, and are part of the American culture by day, but then go home to a different culture, where parents are worried about what is happening in Somalia.
Brandl said the program would help bridge that gap.
McKinley wrote in a memo to defense attorneys that her program could help re-integrate Yusuf into society, "and at the very least, a gradual rejection of whatever violent ideology he allegedly was seeking."
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