As he was sentenced to 30 years in jail on Wednesday, Abdirahman Daud begged other Muslims not to fall victim to the Islamic State’s propaganda machine and embrace jihadist beliefs.
Daud, along with two other Somali-American men, were sentenced by the U.S. District Court in Minneapolis for plotting to leave the U.S. to join and fight with the Islamic State group. Mohamed Farah will also serve 30 years in prison, and purported ring leader Guled Omar will serve 35 years.
The three men were arrested last year and convicted in June of conspiring to join a terrorist organization, just one example of what has become a growing challenge for American law enforcement. The government has struggled to identify people at risk of becoming susceptible to Islamic State propaganda and the jihadist ideology the group has been able to effectively spread using the internet.
“I’ve always had energy for justice as a young man, but I lost my way,” Omar said in a Minnesota courtroom Wednesday. “I’ve had feelings I did not know how to deal with. I looked to the wrong places for answers. I don't want to blame anyone, but [the Islamic State group] and its propaganda did take advantage of me.”
Daud said he too was enticed by the terrorist group’s propaganda and didn’t discuss jihadism with parents or other trusted adults, who could have provided an opposing viewpoint to the violent videos.
A new initiative from Google’s think tank Jigsaw is working to solve that problem: People who absorb terrorist propaganda unfiltered on the internet, are radicalized and try to travel to fight with the group. The effort is called Redirect, which serves users looking for information about terrorist groups information about the dangers of embracing such beliefs instead.
“This came out of an observation that there’s a lot of online demand for ISIS material, but there are also a lot of credible organic voices online debunking their narratives,” Yasmin Green, Jigsaw’s head of research and development, told Wired. “The Redirect Method is at its heart a targeted advertising campaign: Let’s take these individuals who are vulnerable to ISIS’ recruitment messaging and instead show them information that refutes it.”
Targeted advertising gives people searching for a certain thing ads related to their topic of inquiry, which are usually additional products they can buy. Redirect is instead presenting anti-extremist videos that detail what life is actually like under control of the Islamic State group. During a pilot program, 300,000 people searching for more information about terrorist groups were redirected over eight weeks. Those users watched a total of 425,000 minutes of anti-jihadist video.
In court on Wednesday, Senior U.S. District Judge Michael Davis showed an example of Islamic State propaganda, a video depicting the burning alive of a Jordanian fighter pilot in 2015.
“Understand they were watching these for hours at a time, day after day after day,” Davis said.
Green said the Jigsaw effort is aimed at people who have descended far enough into radical ideology that they wouldn’t be influenced by government-produced videos countering the terrorist propaganda. The Redirect material is instead curated to be from sources prospective jihadis are likely to trust, like moderate imams.
“These are people making decisions based on partial, bad information,” Green said. “We can affect the problem of foreign fighters joining the Islamic State by arming individuals with more and better information.”