This article was originally published by USA Today.
“See something, say something” has become part of our national security lexicon, but what happens when it’s a loved one who is behaving suspiciously? What happens when you say something, and you lose your child to prison?
Sal Shafi of Fresno, Calif. saw something and said something. The person he saw was his son Adam, and as the New York Times describes, he called the FBI in hopes of saving him from departing for Syria to join the likes of ISIL or Nusra Front. The situation was far worse than he imagined. Electronic surveillance of Adam’s phone conversations revealed an increasing desire to fight, including killing American soldiers. Just days after Adam was stopped from leaving for Turkey, he was arrested for attempting to support a terrorist organization and faces 20 years in prison. His father has come to regret his decision to cooperate with the FBI.
Conversely, last year I met with a mother in Minneapolis who did not recognize some of the signs that Sal Shafi acknowledged. Her daughter had recently graduated from high school and was pursuing a promising career in nursing. She had limited her circle of friends and stayed home more often, but this was not necessarily cause for concern. Or so it seemed. The woman’s daughter left home for a wedding shower on a Friday, telling her family she would be staying overnight with a friend. Several days later, she sent a text message from Syria. Her mother said she never saw it coming and has not seen her since.
Speaking with parents of would-be terrorists across the world, I have found common agreement: They would rather have their children alive in prison than dead, a casualty of terrorism. That is an obvious but stark choice to face as a parent.
Yet it’s not the only choice, and it’s not even the safest choice. There is an opportunity that falls between a plane ticket and prison. There is an alternative to blocking the return of foreign fighters, or imprisoning those who aspire to be foreign fighters for lengthy sentences in hopes they’ll never be released or will lose their desire to harm others. And that is to help families try to disrupt the radicalization pathway and learn more about why individuals chose a violent course.
A new report from the New America Foundation tracked 94 Americans who tried to support ISIL: 27 got to Syria, 49 did not, and 18 faced charges for supporting the terrorist group inside the United States. Ultimately, 12 of those who made it to Syria were killed; six were arrested when they returned to the United States, and one returned to Syria to die there. The location of the other eight individuals is unknown.
U.S. officials advise that as many as 250 Americans have tried to travel to Syria and James Clapper, director of national intelligence, puts the number of returnees at 40. While these numbers are concerning, the far larger terror threat in America stems from “homegrown” terrorists who have never been foreign fighters but are inspired to commit atrocities, as we witnessed in Boston, Fort Hood and San Bernardino.
Germany has already made tough policy decisions that we in the United States should consider. One of the government’s tools is a national counseling hotline on deradicalization. The calls are referred to partners like Hayat-Germany, a counseling network that helps people who do not want to lose their radicalized relative or friend. The goal is to draw them back from the terrorist fold. Hayat-Germany serves as a bridge between the family and institutions like schools, social services and, if applicable, prosecutors, law enforcement or employers.
The U.S.approach involving Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs is problematic, in part because they may include intelligence gathering and prosecution. If one common outcome of reporting suspected radicalization is incarceration, families and communities won’t have incentives to work with authorities to prevent radicalization and terrorism.
Even though most parents would rather have their child alive in prison than dead on the battlefield, they are not eager to accelerate a counterterrorism investigation against their child, either. If this is the consequence of reporting suspicions to law enforcement, we cannot expect communities to be the essential and forthcoming partners we need them to be to keep America safe.
As my conversations with Hayat-Germany and former extremists continue, it is readily apparent that we have much to learn about extremist radicalization. We need to better understand the decisions of these “formers” to disengage from “the life.” Those who have walked the walk are often the best teachers.
The time to consider changing our policy toward radicalized Americans is now, before other parents heed Mr. Shafi’s advice: “Don’t even think about going to the government.”