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For Next President, The Fight Against Extremism Will Hit Closer To Home

A member of Iraq's government forces battling Islamic State fighters in Anbar province earlier this month.
Haidar Hamdani
AFP/Getty Images
A member of Iraq's government forces battling Islamic State fighters in Anbar province earlier this month.

As candidates hit the campaign trail, NPR looks at four major issues the next president will face from Day 1 in office.

This week, the FBI arrested a 20-year-old Texas man named Asher Abid Khan on allegations that he intended to join the self-proclaimed Islamic State. He joins more than 60 young American men and women who have been lured to Syria by the group, also known as ISIS. What makes Khan's case a little different, though, is the way in which he was arrested by authorities. He had been in Australia and then traveled to Turkey and was about to cross into Syria when his parents sent him a frantic message. They claimed his mother was in the hospital and was desperate to see him. The ruse worked. He left Turkey, flew to Texas and was finally arrested Tuesday, nearly a year after his return. It is unclear whether his parents' participation in convincing him to come home will have some bearing on any eventual sentence — he has been charged with material support to a terrorist organization and faces up to 15 years in prison.

Khan's case is important because it is an indication of the creativity law enforcement officials are starting to employ to stem the flow of American Muslims to ISIS; and it foreshadows the scope of the problem facing the next president from his or her first day in office.

In the past two years, nearly 200 Americans have either tried to travel to Syria and were stopped, are actively considering going, or have actually made it to the ISIS battlefields there. Al-Qaida has never had that kind of attraction and appeal in the U.S. The threat of prison clearly isn't solving the problem. So law enforcement officials are starting to entertain alternatives, and that means the next president will likely have to do so as well.

The one thing everyone seems to agree with in regard to ISIS is that it is fundamentally different from al-Qaida. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, sees himself as a religious figure, a descendant of the prophet who has been chosen to create a homeland, or caliphate, for the world's Muslims. Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaida, fancied himself a warrior, locking horns with the West. A caliphate, he said, could come later. Similarly, ISIS' goals — at least at this point — are different. While bin Laden and his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri are focused on attacking the U.S.; ISIS is endlessly creative in trying to get young men and women to leave home to create a state in Syria and Iraq.

If you don't want to fight, its recruitment videos say, not to worry, you can be a plumber or an electrician or a traffic cop in the new caliphate. ISIS doesn't lure young men and women from around the world with the long audio diatribes bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have always favored, instead the group has been more creative. For example, it re-created its own version of the popular video game Grand Theft Auto. Download the game and you can shoot up Syrian troops, or local police, and get a dose of ISIS propaganda at the same time.

"I don't think al-Qaida ever had that kind of talent," says Tony Sgro, the CEO of a San Francisco company called EdVenture Partners which, among other things, markets to exactly the kind of people who are attracted by ISIS' sales pitch. "I personally don't remember them being such a world-class employment, branding and recruiting agency. But ISIL is."

Sgro is the man behind "Peer 2 Peer: Challenging Extremism," a university-based program that is focused on competing with groups like ISIS or ISIL. The initiative brings together college students from all kinds of disciplines — from marketing to international relations to computer science — and creates a college class that gets them to dream up social media campaigns that will challenge groups like ISIS online. "You know universities are like dense pockets of humanity and it's been fascinating to see the way these faculty, and more importantly the students, view the challenge with different optics," Sgro said.

The program is premised on the idea that the 50-year-olds at the State or Defense Departments don't know what animates 20-somethings attracted to ISIS, but their peers do. The question is: Will it work? And will the next president, looking for creative solutions to counter ISIS, pursue this kind of strategy?

Ground zero for another experiment — an attempt at deradicalizing young men and women seduced by ISIS' social media campaign — started just this year in Minnesota. Until recently, U.S. counterterrorism officials dismissed the efficacy of deradicalization programs. The number of Americans who radicalized and embraced groups like al-Qaida was so small, there was little enthusiasm for developing a program to change their mindsets. The thinking was that prison time could do that. Then ISIS happened, and with dozens of Americans leaving for the Middle East, law enforcement officials, particularly at the Justice Department, seem more open to the idea. According to federal law enforcement officials, the Twin Cities alone are home to some 40 young men and women who are either establishing ties with ISIS members or have tried to join them.

Earlier this month, at a pretrial hearing in Minneapolis, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis told five young Somali-Americans who were arrested before they could board planes bound for Syria that he'd consider moving them into halfway houses while they awaited trial if their lawyers could come up with a creative limited release program. Spectators in the courtroom were stunned. So far, just one young man, Abdullahi Yusuf, has been allowed to enroll in a program like that. He, too, is in Minneapolis. A 19-year-old former football player at the local high school, Yusuf was caught trying to board a flight to Turkey more than a year ago. The judge offered him a rehab program; a woman named Mary McKinley is in the process of creating one.

"We haven't done this before, not very many people have done this before, so we're going slow," said McKinley. She's the executive director of Heartland Democracy, a Minnesota nonprofit, who was asked to create the jihadi rehabilitation program. "The proposal that we submitted to the court was a series of work we'd already done, conversations we had and ideas going forward." The early curriculum reads like the syllabus from a civics class: Writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., selections from the Constitution, Malcolm X. It is unclear whether the latest batch of possible rehabilitation candidates will get the same reading list or whether McKinley will be asked to work with them as well, but it is progress.

The U.S. attorney in Minnesota is a man named Andrew Luger. An official in his office familiar with Luger's thinking said he believed that when it came to rehabilitation for ISIS travelers, the U.S. attorney's thinking "is evolving." Luger fought Abdullahi Yusuf's release at the beginning of the year, but has since softened his position. He didn't object when the judge suggested they possibly include more young men from the Twin Cities in some sort of program. While all these alleged ISIS travelers are likely to serve some jail time, participating in a rehab program could whittle down their sentences or be used to smooth their transition back into the community when they get out. Deradicalization is a policy choice the next president faces.

Finally, from Day 1, the next president will likely have to make some hard decisions about drones. The program began in secrecy and is now the stuff of popular culture. Ethan Hawke has just opened a new movie called Good Kill, in which he plays a drone pilot who is having doubts about the targets chosen and the civilians drones might kill. These are the very issues the next president will have to address. "The pressure is growing. Certainly when you go overseas, drones do not have a favorable image," said James Lewis, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I think they are really beneficial, I think we have to use them, but we've got to take that unfavorable reaction into account."

That reaction hit closer to home just last month when President Obama came into the White House briefing room to announce that an American aid worker and another man held hostage by al-Qaida were killed in an American drone strike. The attack had taken place in Pakistan in January. The CIA authorized the attack on a compound linked to al-Qaida without realizing that the two hostages were being held there. The U.S. had reportedly done hundreds of hours of surveillance over the target, but failed to realize that hostages were there. President Obama took full responsibility and promised a reassessment of the program. "We're going to review what happened," he said. "We're gonna identify the lessons that can be learned and any improvements and changes that can be made."

The next president will likely have to do the same from Day 1.

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Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.