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Deradicalizer used in case of 5 Muslim men arrested in Pakistan

From Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, CNN
  • 5 missing U.S. Muslims arrested this week in Pakistan
  • Parents, Muslim group had a deradicalizer trying to find the youths
  • Parents hoped sons would quietly be picked up and brought home, deradicalizer says
  • Expert says there is no single path to radicalization among young men
  • Terrorism
  • Pakistan
  • Islam

(CNN) -- They are a little like the deprogrammers who try to coax young -- and not so young -- impressionable people out of cults. But if anything, their work is more important. They are in the middle of a web that includes would-be terrorists, distraught families and anxious federal authorities.

Deradicalizers find themselves busier than ever, dealing with young Muslim men who live in America but want to wage jihad in Pakistan, Somalia or Afghanistan. Influenced by radicalized friends or preachers, sometimes by what they read, see and hear on the Internet, they become fixated by a sense of injustice toward Muslims around the world.

CNN has learned that one of the most experienced of these deradicalizers was intimately involved in efforts to find five young men who vanished from their homes in northern Virginia at the end of November. On Wednesday, Pakistani officials reported the arrest of the five in the town of Sargodha in Punjab.

The young men's families went to the offices of Council on American Islamic Relations in Washington on the morning of December 1, shortly after discovering their sons were missing. They'd also discovered a disturbing video posted by one of them.

The council contacted a Muslim community organization involved in deradicalization efforts, the director of that organization said. Given the sensitivity of the case, the organization has asked not to be identified. The executive director of the council, Nihad Awad, confirmed the role of the organization to CNN.

The deradicalizer said he contacted the FBI and, together with the council, worked closely with U.S. authorities to locate the men. FBI agents interviewed family members of the missing men in northern Virginia and young Muslims living in the area, he said. The Muslim community in northern Virginia was very cooperative, he said, and "the FBI was careful not to strong-arm the community."

A source briefed on the investigation said U.S. authorities pinpointed the location of the apartments where the men were staying in Pakistan two days before the arrests. U.S. authorities had been trying to gather intelligence on who the individuals were contacting so they could try to establish if they had linked with militant groups in Pakistan, and who might have helped them get to Pakistan.

For the families, the way the story unfolded was disappointing and upsetting, according to the deradicalizer. They were hoping their sons would quietly be picked up and discreetly brought back to the U.S. Their arrest has scotched any chance of that.

One Muslim community leader whose organization has been closely involved in deradicalization efforts is Mohammed Elibiary, who is based in Texas. He said there is no single path to radicalization among these young men. It is rarely a mosque or Islamic school, as such institutions have a lot to lose if found to be radicalizing their congregants, he said.

More often, Elibiary said, Web sites, chat-rooms and forums and other forms of social networking are involved. Rarely are "recruiters" involved, he said.

Elibiary told CNN's Anderson Cooper that the radicalization of American Muslim teenagers has become known as "jihadi cool," a term coined by author Marc Sageman. "The path for a lot of these kids is essentially like at-risk gangbangers, who want to stand up for their community, to address grievances of the global Muslim community more effectively than they've seen the elder generation address them since 9/11."

Elibiary said the great majority of these young men have little sense of what they are doing. They are "extremely shallow theologically and even ideologically."

He studied a group of young Somali-Americans who disappeared last year. "Their parents were saying these kids don't even know what Somalia was ... they are fighting for a cause that they really don't know anything about," he said.

He said there is no single method of dealing with these young men.

He prefers the term "disengagement" because radicalization doesn't necessarily lead to violence. It can be no more than holding political views beyond the mainstream.

It is difficult to challenge their world-view, Elibiary said. They see a war on Islam and there is plenty of political rhetoric to reinforce that view, he said. So he tries to change their priorities. If they have a wife or children, for example, they have a responsibility as Muslims to take care of them.

Elibiary said there are grounds for optimism, despite the apparent increase in the number of young American Muslims who have seen themselves as jihadists.

"The American Muslim community is by far and will continue to be the most integrated, affluent and higher-educated [of] the rest of the western Muslim communities," he said, adding that it is not as though any more than a fringe will be attracted to violence in the name of their religion.