By Esme Murphy

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — There was an unprecedented hearing in Minneapolis federal court Tuesday, focusing on trying to provide alternative sentencing to six young Minnesota men convicted of trying to help ISIS.

The focus of the hearing is the controversial theory that the young men can be de-radicalized.

The six defendants all pleaded guilty in a larger case that included three men who were convicted last spring in the terrorism case.

The six terror trial defendants (credit: CBS)

The six terror trial defendants (credit: CBS)

Related: A Timeline Of The Minneapolis Terror Trial

Tuesday’s hearing featured one witness: Daniel Koehler, a German expert who is considered one of the world’s leading experts on de-radicalization efforts.

This is more than unusual — this is the first time this has ever happened. Judge Michael Davis and the United States Probation and Pretrial Services System hired Daniel Koehler, who has developed anti-radicalization programs in Germany that deal both with radical jihadists and neo-Nazis.

Koehler did individual evaluations of each of the six defendants and their families to determine how radicalized they are, and what was their risk of re-offending. Koehler, for example, evaluated the defendant Abdullahi Yusuf as a medium-to-low risk of re-offending, which is the second-lowest category.

Koehler said Yusuf “has not been 100-percent de-radicalized, but is already in an advanced stage of disengagement.” He said Yusuf was not completely forthcoming about his friendship with Abdi Nur, a 2013 graduate of Southwest High School who left for Syria in May of 2014. Nur is widely believed to have died fighting for ISIS in Syria.

Daniel Koehler (credit: CBS)

Daniel Koehler (credit: CBS)

Koehler’s risk assessment of another defendant, Abdirizak Warsame, was that the young man was at a high risk of re-offending because of his religious commitment and support for ISIS ideology.

There were fireworks during Tuesday’s hearing, with some defense attorneys whose clients got high-risk assessments expressing their unhappiness with the process. They hammered at Koehler, suggesting his evaluations were not fair.

Koehler testified about only four of the six defendants. He will testify about the remaining two on Wednesday.

The concept of trying to de-radicalize terror defendants is a controversial one. Koehler shared his beliefs in a panel discussion last year.

“I’m very positive about counter-terrorism effects of de-radicalization programs,” Koehler said. “So many people think, especially in the U.S., that de-radicalization program is seen as a weird, soft approach to something that should be handled by the pros, by agents, FBI intelligence.”

All six defendants face a maximum of 15 years in prison because of their guilty pleas, but Judge Davis will be using these evaluations to provide alternative sentencing that would involve a great deal of counseling when these defendants are sentenced in November.

Davis said at the beginning of the hearing he was concerned about what would happen if the defendants were just locked away without intensive de-radicalization efforts.

It is not clear why Davis is heading down this road, since there is no de-radicalization counseling in U.S. prisons. It is also not clear where the defendants will end up when they are sentenced in November.

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Esme Murphy