By Julia Harte, Julia Edwards and David Bailey
MINNEAPOLIS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In the spring of 2014, as Islamic State seized ground in Syria, a group of 10 young Somali-American men in Minneapolis began scheming to join the battle between games of basketball at a neighborhood mosque, a jury found on Friday.
But the court case leaves larger doubts unresolved over the success of one of the U.S. government's flagship programs to counter home-grown extremism in a city whose large Muslim population has been a focus of concern over radicalization.
It raises questions over whether the U.S. government has figured out a way to steer most young Muslims away from Islamist extremism and what the involvement of law enforcement officials should be.
With the help of an informant, FBI agents tracked the group and prosecutors charged them with trying to join Islamic State late last year, the largest such case the U.S. Justice Department has brought.
In February 2015, before most of the arrests, the administration of President Barack Obama had designated Minneapolis -- home to the largest population of Somali immigrants in the United States -- as a test bed for experimental efforts to counter terrorist recruiting.
Attorney Andrew Luger, the state’s senior prosecutor, made outreach to the Somali community a top priority, helping secure funds for programs targeting youth seen as at risk for joining extremists groups and appearing at schools and community events to make a plea to parents and children.
In a related experiment, the federal judge in the case has piloted a program developed in Germany intended to help rehabilitate young Muslims who have pleaded guilty to supporting Islamic State.
But the long-term success of that de-radicalization program remains in question, those involved say. Officials and community activists also say there is an unavoidable tension in asking law enforcement officials to act as both cop and counselor.
A panel of advisors to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a report on Thursday calling for the government to step out of the role of messenger in its efforts to derail youth on the path to radicalization.
While there is no evidence that the defendants participated in such programs, some critics in the Somali community see Luger's efforts as a way to build cases for new arrests - an allegation that is strongly denied by Luger and the Justice Department.
“The way we see it, basically, they are using it as an intelligence-gathering activity,” said Kamal Hassan, founder of the Somali Human Rights Commission, who has watched the trial unfold from the back row of the courtroom.
The jury on Friday returned guilty verdicts on the three defendants on trial, on charges including conspiracy to commit murder outside the United States and to provide material support for a foreign terrorist group. Six others pleaded guilty, and one succeeded in reaching Syria.
Several other Somali-American youth from the Minneapolis-Saint Paul "Twin Cities" area have successfully traveled to Syria to join Islamic State over the past two years, according to court records and law enforcement officials.
The alleged ringleader of the 10 men charged in the Minneapolis case was 20-year-old Abdirizak Warsame, who was among those who pleaded guilty and is undergoing the counseling program before sentencing.
Warsame's close relatives had been prominent in working with Luger on discouraging Somali youth from joining extremist groups. They appeared at community forums with Luger to promote "alternatives to radicalization", court records show.
“If he could slip through the cracks, who else could?" said Mohamud Mohamed, 19, his friend and former classmate.
Warsame has cooperated with federal prosecutors, taking the stand in the just-concluded trial as a government witness. In testimony, he and others said the 10 men had watched propaganda films from the Somali militant group Al Shabaab and from Islamic State.
They discussed the best ways of traveling to Syria to evade law enforcement, applied for expedited passports, and contacted active Islamic State militants for help getting there. Nine of the 10 were arrested before they could leave.
Luger’s efforts to reach out to the community have led to some mistrust.
SPOTTING THE SIGNS
When Luger went before the mostly Somali students of Heritage Academy in Minneapolis to make a plea to resist extremist recruiting last year, a few months after the first arrests in the Islamic State case, a group of students walked out in protest.
“I'm a prosecutor,” he told Reuters. “Plus I'm from a different culture. I'm different than them.”
Programs like Luger’s can backfire by making young people who are drawn to foreign militant groups more secretive, said Jaylani Hussein, who leads the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group.
Still, the number of Americans trying to join Islamic State has dropped from roughly eight to one per month since August, FBI Director James Comey told reporters at a May briefing.
About 250 Americans have joined or tried to join Islamic State since the group formed, and the FBI has more than 1,000 open investigations. By comparison, thousands of Europeans have joined Islamic State.
Warsame and four others in the Minneapolis case who have pleaded guilty were interviewed by a German researcher, Daniel Koehler, who traveled to Minneapolis in April at the request of the federal judge in the case.
Koehler also trained their probation officers to spot signs of jihadism and assess the threat each poses to society. The judge will take the results from the still experimental program into account when deciding the five men's sentences.
Judges around the United States are eager to see the outcome of Koehler's work.
Nicholas Garaufis, a federal judge in district court in Brooklyn, asked a federal prosecutor in April to research Koehler’s program with an eye to addressing "this very, very difficult issue using means other than just the courtroom," according to court records.
The Somali-American men could face decades in prison, but Luger has said he hopes Koehler’s program can turn Warsame and the participants into counter-extremism advocates.
"If there’s success, and they want to be of help, what I have said publicly is I would like people who are going through that process to be able to talk," Luger said. "Somebody needs to go into these schools and talk."
(Editing by Kevin Krolicki, Kevin Drawbaugh, and Stuart Grudgings.)