Photo credit: Gabrielle Lurie
By Matt Apuzzo
The banging on the door jolted Sal Shafi awake. F.B.I. agents were looking for his son. “Where’s Adam?” they yelled. “Where’s Adam?”
Terrified, Mr. Shafi led the agents, guns drawn, up the stairs toward his son’s bedroom. He watched as they led his 22-year-old son away in handcuffs, backed by evidence of Adam Shafi’s terrorist ambitions.
He had come to the attention of officials not by a well-placed informant or a sting operation. His father, concerned and looking for help, had simply picked up the phone and led the government right to his son. For months, over the objections of his lawyer, Mr. Shafi had been talking to the F.B.I., believing he was doing the right thing.
“My God,” he thought, soon after the arrest in July. “I just destroyed Adam.”
Had things been different, Mr. Shafi, 62, a Silicon Valley executive, might have become a much-needed spokesman for the Obama administration’s counterradicalization campaign. Who better to talk to other parents about the seductive pull of terror organizations? Trust the government, he would tell them. They do not want to take away your children.
Despite nascent efforts to steer young people away from terrorism, the government’s strategy remains largely built on persuading people to call the F.B.I. when they first suspect a problem.
“Alert law enforcement,” Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in December. “It could simply be your neighbor having a bad day. But better be safe than sorry.”
For parents, particularly those who see their children as misguided but not dangerous, the decision to make that call can be agonizing. Do you risk sending your son to prison? Or hope things improve and he does not hurt anyone?
The Justice Department praised Mr. Shafi’s efforts to save his son, but said in court that his son was living a “terrifying” double life. Prosecutors said Adam Shafi was “such an unpredictable threat” that he was too dangerous to be anywhere but a jail cell. Mr. Shafi and others, though, say the case shows that there were never any alternatives.
“This is an abject failure, that there is no system in place that doesn’t result in spending 20 years in jail,” said Seamus Hughes, a former National Counterterrorism Center official who once helped implement the Obama administration’s strategy for countering violent extremism.
The Justice Department’s campaign against American supporters of the Islamic State is rife with examples of family members acting out of desperation. Mothers have hidden passports and money to keep their sons from traveling. In Minnesota, a fight broke out as relatives tried to keep a young man from flying out of the country. In Texas, a family lured a 19-year-old home from Turkey by tricking him into thinking his mother had fallen ill.
Mr. Shafi chose a different route. He did what the government asked. His story is a desperate search for someone to help his son.
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