A teenager from Texas was shocked to find out that after aborting his attempt to join the Islamic State in Syria and flying back home, he is facing charges of conspiracy and attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State.
If convicted, Asher Abid Khan, 19, from a suburb of Houston, could face 30 years in prison.
Khan flew to Istanbul, planning to cross the border into Syria and join the terror organization. In a conversation with a friend on Facebook, he professed his desire to “die as a Shaheed (martyr),” saying he was “looking forward to dying in Allah’s cause and meeting Allah.”
While waiting in the Turkish airport, Khan listened to pleading messages from family members on his voicemail to return.
Khan had a change of heart, picked up his phone and said to his father, “I want to come home.” Without leaving the airport, Khan took a flight back to Houston.
Khan is one of many American youth who have been radicalized online. Since 2014, the FBI has made an arrest at a rate of one per week in connection with the Islamic State. More than 60 people have been charged with providing material support to the terror group along with other terrorism-related charges.
Unlike Europe, the U.S. has few deradicalization programs in place for cases like Khan. Moreover, because these programs have only recently been started, there is no documentation available to attest to their success or failure rates.
While time behind bars alleviates the short-term threat, it has been documented that U.S. prisons are providing fertile ground for radicalization (see our video below).
Khan’s lawyer, Thomas Berg, says that when Khan boarded the plane home, he also changed his mind about his approach to Islam. Berg is a former colonel in the Army reserves. He served in Guantanamo Bay, where he helped set up the first military commissions, and in Afghanistan.
"He came home and did the right thing," Berg said. "If the government was smart, they would exploit that. My kid could go to the mosques and talk about redemption."
He argues that if he is sent to jail, there is no incentive for the next young person to change his mind about joining the Islamic State, since the FBI’s approach offers no way back.
However, the FBI says that even months after Khan returned from Turkey, he told a friend to keep an open mind about the Islamic State and said that America was the “Great Deceiver.”
"We don't know what he is going to do in three years," a senior law enforcement official said. "We'll let the courts sort it out."
"It is almost like playing Russian roulette," said Andrew Arena, a former special agent in charge of the Detroit Field Office. "If you guess wrong, you got problems."
However, Arena also acknowledged the limits of the American approach. "You're not going to arrest your way out of this problem," he said.