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The Release And Supervision Of Radicalized Convicts


On Thursday, John Walker Lindh, a man known as the American Taliban, was released from prison after serving 17 years of a 20-year sentence. Lindh was captured during the first months of the war in Afghanistan. He later pleaded guilty to aiding the Taliban and said he'd made a mistake joining them.

Now the question of what should happen to former jihadists and others committed to terrorist organizations is one that governments all over the world are confronting, especially the question of whether these prisoners can be safely released back to society. We wanted to talk about this with one of the few American officials who's faced this question in a comprehensive way in recent years, Kevin Lowry. He's not involved with Lindh's probation. But, as the former chief probation officer for the U.S. District Court in Minnesota, he oversaw a program that worked with people convicted of crimes related to terrorist activity. And I started by asking him how can anyone really know if someone involved with a terrorist group has changed.

KEVIN LOWRY: Well, I think it's very important to realize that we never go by somebody's words. We watch their actions and their behaviors. And we're constantly monitoring those through surveillance. They monitor very closely while they're in custody of the Bureau of Prisons. We monitor very closely while they're on supervision. So that's what we're doing in our monitoring to protect the community is to make sure that people aren't involved, or their activities do not put up red flags that they're engaging in extremist behaviors or activities.

MARTIN: Now, one of the reasons we've called you is that you've dealt with extremists from a lot of backgrounds in recent years - both former jihadists and white supremacists, or people who belong to these far-right extremist groups. Why Minnesota?

LOWRY: Well, one of the things that brought this to forefront for us is we have a immigrant population of about a hundred thousand people that has been very heavily targeted by al-Shabaab and ISIS. There is a number of young men and some women that have got involved in - with foreign terrorist organizations. We've had a lot of these cases come through our justice system, and we've had to work with them both on a pretrial basis through sentencing or a conviction process.

In addition to that, we're dealing with them as they're coming out on supervised release into the community after being incarcerated in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons.

MARTIN: So the program in Minnesota, was the goal of the program to de-radicalize people? Was the goal to assess whether they had educated themselves about the consequences of the ideologies that they had been loyal to? What was the goal? How did it work?

LOWRY: It's forensic in nature, and it very carefully breaks down all of the person's history, all of their involvement in the terrorist organization. It involves looking at things like, did they have a loss or a broken identity or lack of identity? Do they have meaning purpose or belonging in addition to that status and ideology? We start with dissecting these things in a psychological fashion and working with them to re-establish somebody's identity, to give them a meaning and purpose, to give them some sort of belonging in addition to developing a status as - in community, which we hope is a successful law-abiding citizen.

But it's a very complex process that requires identifying underlying factors of, why did people get involved in terrorism in the first place, and then what underlying factors were triggers for them, and then how can we counter those throughout the process?

MARTIN: Well, what do you make of the narrative around Lindh? I mean, at the time he was sentenced, he said it was a mistake. He said it was a mistake to join the Taliban. It was a mistake to go and fight with them. But subsequently, there have been these reports by - allegedly by U.S. government assessors - saying that he supports ISIS or that he supports their goals. How do you assess something like that? How do you - what do you make of that?

LOWRY: In any case where somebody hasn't denounced a group cause or ideology that advocates for terrorism or criminal extremism, then - A, that is a red flag, and it's something that you need to watch. But also what we see with a lot of these cases is leakage. And leakage is when some sort of information that is passed between extremists or in other correspondence from extremists, or that they advocate for some sort of extremist organization or ideology other than their own, gives us a clear indication that they have not made some sort of cognitive shift away from violent or criminal extremism.

MARTIN: You know, thousands of people around the world are facing these situations now. I mean, these people who left lots of countries to go overseas and connect with ISIS or fight for ISIS or marry people involved with these extremist organizations, they're coming back. Do you have advice for your officials in other parts of the country, or perhaps even the world, about how we should start thinking about this as a society?

LOWRY: Well, I think first and foremost that it has to be a focus area, and, A and B, that it has to be very well-funded. We can't think of this as an issue of the day, and then a 24-hour news cycle passes, and it's not the topic that's hot in the media attention at the moment. Every time that we stop or we don't continue to move forward when a catastrophic event occurs, then we're going to be in a situation where asking the same questions - what are we doing? Why aren't we doing more? What should be done?

MARTIN: That's Kevin Lowry. He is the former chief probation officer for the U.S. District Court in Minnesota. Mr. Lowry, thank you so very much for talking to us.

LOWRY: You're welcome. And thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.