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

Sep 28, 2016
Originally published on September 30, 2016 9:19 am

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."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

An unusual thing happened last week in the U.S. Attorneys' Office in Minneapolis. The family of a young man who had tried to join ISIS stood before dozens of community leaders with an unusual plea. Parents should turn in children they think might be radicalizing. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has our report.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: If you'd walked into this one session in the U.S. Attorneys' Office last week, you might be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled into a PTA meeting. Seated behind a long table were members of the Yusuf family - five people who had experienced ISIS in a way they'd never imagined.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Seated here on my right is Sadiik, whose the father of Abdullahi Yusuf.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).

TEMPLE-RASTON: Abdullahi Yusuf the most famous Minnesota high school student you've never heard of. Two years ago, the FBI prevented him from boarding a flight from Minneapolis to Istanbul. He was on his way to join ISIS.

SADIIK YUSEF: (Through interpreter) Abdullahi - at the time, he was in high school.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Abdullahi's father Sidiik speaking through an interpreter, and he vividly recalls when the FBI showed up at his door in May of 2014.

YUSEF: (Through interpreter) As a family, it was very difficult day. It was a shocking and horrifying day.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Given the turn of events, you'd think that Sidiik Yusuf would be angry about what happened, but he isn't. He says the FBI saved his boy's life.

YUSEF: (Through interpreter) A hundred percent for sure is if he was not stopped or arrested that day, he might have not lived today.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Sidiik Yusuf's attitude is unusual. As a general matter, the Somali-Americans in the Twin Cities are suspicious of the government's intentions. Some will tell you that the ISIS cases here are a result of FBI racial profiling and entrapment. They don't believe terrorists are recruiting Minnesota kids. Quintin Wiktorowicz runs a company called Affinis Labs, which, among other things, works to counter violent extremism in communities. And he says the use of family coming forward to talk shows courage.

QUINTIN WIKTOROWICZ: It's brave because communities like the Somali community in Minneapolis have a history of troubled and distrustful relationships with law enforcement. So to come out in that kind of meeting is a very unique experience, and there's a lot of possible lessons to other families that can be gleaned.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Counterterrorism officials now say the only way ISIS recruiters will ultimately be defeated is on the ground. And that may mean instead of rounding people up, authorities will need to focus more on prevention.

LISA MONACO: This has got to be about more than identifying potential prosecutions.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Lisa Monaco, President Obama's top terrorism adviser.

MONACO: 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're going down the wrong path. How do I help?

TEMPLE-RASTON: How do I help? Monaco says the Obama administration is working to fund local programs to give parents and kids options before they start to go down the wrong path. Sidiik Yusuf, for his part, considers himself lucky. Two have his son's friends who managed to leave Minnesota to join ISIS have died in fighting in Syria. His son is still alive.

YUSEF: (Through interpreter) Today he lives within the Twin Cities. I visit him. I help him. The whole family help him. Because he was stopped, because he was arrested - that was the reason that he's alive today.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Because he's arrested, his father said - that's why he's alive today. It's a compelling argument that counterterrorism officials hope resonates with other parents. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.