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An experiment on how to punish those seduced by ISIS played out in a Minnesota courtroom this week, as a federal judge who has embraced a deradicalization program handed down a wide range of sentences to nine terrorist recruits — from time served to 35 years.
At one end of the spectrum, Judge Michael Davis released one young Somali-American man who already has spent 21 months into a halfway house. But others who were part of the plot to become ISIS fighters in Syria got far harsher sentences of several decades.
Emotional at times, Davis made it clear in the packed courtroom that he was struggling to strike a balance between protecting the public and giving those who turned their back on extremism a second chance.
In the case of Abdullahi Yusuf, who testified against his co-conspirators and got the lightest sentence, Davis noted that the prison system has no programs to rehabilitate radicals.
If the 20 year-old is locked up, "we will lose that opportunity, however small, to help this kid," Davis said, according to NBC station KARE.
Two days later, the judge showed little mercy to three defendants who were convicted at trial, including one who allegedly flashed an ISIS sign to supporters after his pleas for leniency were rejected.
"You're not fooling me," Davis told Mohamed Farah after he claimed he wanted to go back into the community to counsel others against extremism.
Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law, said Davis' nuanced approach to the sentences broke with the traditional throw-the-book-at-them framework of terrorism cases.
"There's never been an attempt to see the gradations," she said.
"What we’re really seeing is terrorism cases finally beginning follow the pattern we see in other cases," Greenberg added. "The cooperator gets the best sentencing deal; those who go to trial are going to get the most punitive deals."
Davis' efforts to find new strategies began months ago when he created a deradicalization program, tapping an overseas expert to create risk evaluations for the defendants, develop counseling plans, and train two dozen federal probation officers.
The expert, Daniel Koehler, who endorses the same techniques that have been used to rehabilitate neo-Nazis in Europe, met with the defendants and then testified about his findings at a pre-sentencing hearing in September.
For the sentencing, Davis appeared to divide the nine into three groups: those who pleaded guilty and cooperated got little time, those who pleaded guilty and did not cooperate got between 10 and 15 years, and those who pleaded not guilty and were convicted at trial were given 30 years or more.
In the first category were Yusuf, who got no extra jail time but 20 years supervised release, and Abdirizak Warsame, who was sentenced to 30 months with 20 years supervised release afterward.
Scott W. Johnson, a Minneapolis attorney who co-founded the conservative blog Power Line and has been monitoring the case closely, said he was uneasy with Yusuf's time-served sentence.
"I'm uncomfortable with taking anything on faith," Johnson said, but noted that Davis also sent a clear anti-terrorism message by denouncing lies told by defendants, playing the violent videos they watched, and declaring they were part of a bona fide jihadist cell.
Warsame, 21, had appeared on "60 Minutes" weeks earlier to talk about his transformation from a leader of the ISIS cell to a proponent of deradicalization, but he got more time than Yusuf.
The judge expressed skepticism about his turnaround but still cut him a break, shaving two years off the sentence recommended by prosecutors — even though Koehler ranked him as high-risk.
Warsame's attorney, Robert Sicoli, told NBC News that it was a "fair sentence" and hopes that courts across the country are looking to Minnesota as a possible model.
"We don’t know if it will work but you have to try something," he said. "Just throwing people in prison doesn’t work."
As the three-day hearing went on, the sentences got stiffer. The third to learn his fate, Zacharia Abdurahman, 21, was given 10 years. He did not cooperate because he did not want to testify against friends, he told the judge.
On Tuesday, Hamza Ahmed, 21, got 15 years after admitting, "I was a terrorist" and saying he was grateful he was arrested before he went to ISIS territory.
"Your apology to me is just a statement right now because you were deeply involved to be a warrior for ISIS," Davis told him, according to KARE. "I'm going to send you to prison so you're going to have to continue working on the change."
Adnan Farah, 20, also thanked those who arrested him; he was sentenced to 10 years. Hanad Musse, 21, got the same punishment.
"Sir, are you a terrorist or not?" Davis asked him.
"I am a terrorist, yes," he said.
The final three defendants were sentenced Wednesday; none had pleaded guilty or cooperated. They expressed remorse and made anti-ISIS statements, but it was too little, too late for the judge.
Farah, 22, and Abdirahman Daud, 22, were both sentenced to 30 years. A sobbing Guled Omar, 22, got the longest punishment — 35 years — after prosecutors described him as a ringleader and said his tears were just a ploy to get a shorter sentence.