The banging on the door jolted Sal Shafi awake. FBI agents were looking for his son.
“Where’s Adam?” they yelled. “Where’s Adam?”
Terrified, 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 alleged terrorist ambitions.
Illustration: Mountain People
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 telephone and led the government right to his son. For months, over the objections of his lawyer, Sal Shafi had been talking to the FBI, believing he was doing the right thing.
“My God,” he thought, soon after the arrest in July last year. “I just destroyed Adam.”
Had things been different, Sal Shafi, 62, a Silicon Valley executive, might have become a much-needed spokesman for the administration of US President Barack Obama’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 FBI when they first suspect a problem.
“Alert law enforcement,” US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in December last year. “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 US Department of Justice praised Sal Shafi’s efforts to save Adam, 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. Sal 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 US National Counterterrorism Center official who once helped implement the Obama administration’s strategy for countering violent extremism.
The department’s campaign against US 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.
Sal Shafi chose a different route. He did what the government asked. His story is a desperate search for someone to help his son.
The Shafis were vacationing in Cairo in the summer of 2014, visiting extended family, when they awoke on a Saturday to find Adam Shafi gone. He sent a text message to a younger brother, saying he had left “to protect Muslims.”
Sal Shafi has never been deeply religious — “don’t do bad things,” is how he describes his faith — but his son had embraced religion. Outwardly at least, that meant charity. He made sandwiches and delivered them to homeless people in San Francisco. He talked about opening a free health clinic. Perhaps, Sal Shafi thought, Adam, who was 21 at the time, was at a mosque working on a social cause.
However, when he did not come home, Sal Shafi became frantic. A protective father of five, he had installed tracking software on his children’s phones. However, it did not work overseas.
On Sunday, he called the US embassy in Cairo. An official there was polite, but dismissive and told him to wait another day.
“Maybe he’s been recruited,” Sal Shafi said.
That grabbed the man’s attention.
Sal Shafi now says he was merely trying to prod the embassy into helping his son, but he acknowledged that, at the time, he was also thinking about the parents on the news who discovered that their children had fled to join the Islamic State.
At the embassy later that day, Sal told officials he worried that his son might be following imams online, according to court documents.
His son, he said, had been “grieving about what is happening to Muslims” abroad.
“Maybe he is in Syria? Iraq? Gaza?” he said.
It turned out that Adam Shafi was in Turkey, a common gateway for foreign fighters to Syria. Not long after the embassy meeting, he texted his family that he was on his way back. He told his family he had gone to witness the plight of refugees there.
“Why didn’t you let us know?” Sal Shafi demanded.
He remembers his son’s response: “He said: ‘You wouldn’t have let me go.’ Which is true. You say you’re going to visit refugees by yourself? Hell no.”
At home in California, Sal Shafi’s lawyer ordered him not to talk to the FBI. However, when two agents arrived at the house a few weeks later, Sal Shafi invited them in.
“We don’t have criminal minds,” he said later. “Maybe I’m naive. I’ve never dealt with the authorities before. I wanted to cooperate.”
He arranged for the agents to interview Adam at a coffee shop.
In conversations over many months, court documents show, Sal Shafi told the agents he worried about his son’s depression and said he had encouraged counseling. Sometimes, when the television showed people suffering in war-torn Syria, his son would leave the room and cry, he said.
With his son under FBI investigation and facing few options, Sal Shafi arranged for him to visit a suspected terror financier, Armin Harcevic, in a nearby jail.
Sal Shafi told the FBI he hoped it would help his son “see the error in his ways or at least the grave consequences,” according to court documents.
Once, Sal Shafi said, the agents mentioned the Boston Marathon bombing and said they believed his son had been radicalized.
Sal Shafi laughed.
“I don’t think so,” he told them. “I can assure you that Adam is not violent.”
The FBI had good reason to doubt those assurances — agents had been secretly eavesdropping on Adam Shafi’s phone conversations.
“I just hope Allah doesn’t take my soul until I have at least, like, a couple gallons of blood that I’ve spilled for him,” Adam Shafi said in one conversation in June last year, according to court records.
He also mused about killing US soldiers, the records said.
In another call, he said the Islamic State group killed too indiscriminately, but he admired the Nusra Front, which is linked to al-Qaeda. Nusra, like the US, is fighting both the Islamic State and the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. However, it is a designated terrorist group and supporting it is illegal.
“I am completely fine dying with these guys,” he said, according to court documents.
Then, on June 30 last year, Sal Shafi’s phone-tracking software alerted him that his son was at the San Francisco airport, at a gate for Turkish Airlines, trying to go to Turkey again.
Sal Shafi scrambled to contact overseas relatives to intercept his son in Istanbul, but FBI and US Homeland Security agents had met him at the gate and were interviewing him at the airport.
He told them that he no longer wanted to live in the US and that he wanted to help the refugees in Turkey.
“Adam claimed that some people helped by building a house, while others picked up a gun,” Christopher Monika, an FBI agent, wrote in court documents.
Adam Shafi told the FBI he was not going to pick up a gun. Eventually, the agents sent him home.
Days later, the FBI went to the Shafi home with a warrant for attempting to support a terrorist organization — a charge that carried up to 20 years in prison — and led Adam Shafi away in handcuffs. His case was kept under seal while his family and his lawyers tried to negotiate a way out.
Normally, that means a plea deal and a hope for leniency. Sal Shafi pitched something else — a program in which counselors, mental-health experts and religious leaders worked with Adam to set him straight. If all went well, Shafi hoped, his son could avoid prison and a criminal record.
Though the White House and a US congressional task force have endorsed this concept, no such program exists. So Sal Shafi tried to create one. He flew to Washington in November last year to attend a Brookings Institution seminar on radicalization. There he met Daniel Koehler, a German deradicalization expert who offered to help.
“There have simply been too many cases of families who didn’t have any help,” Koehler said in an interview. “I thought back then that this could be a good test case.”
The FBI has quietly and slowly embraced the notion of interventions. In a few cities, agents work with parents, mental-health experts, community leaders and sometimes religious figures to help minors or mentally ill people who agents believe have the intent, but not the capability, to hurt people. Though civil libertarians — and some FBI agents — are skeptical of what they see as blurring the line between social work and law enforcement, supporters say interventions are an alternative to long-term surveillance, which strains FBI resources.
Law enforcement officials said they have offered interventions to only about a dozen people and they acknowledge that it is too soon to say whether they work.
At 22, Adam Shafi was not eligible for such an intervention, but his father and lawyers remained optimistic.
The government did not dismiss the idea out of hand, they said.
Then came the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California.
“You see these events that narrow the universe of what’s possible,” said Joshua Dratel, a New York lawyer representing Adam Shafi.
There would be no deal.
In December, the Justice Department unsealed the case and prepared for trial.
In court documents, prosecutors said that neither a well-intentioned father nor the threat of an FBI investigation were enough to steer Adam Shafi away from terrorism.
Sal Shafi’s efforts aside, prosecutors said, his son was simply too dangerous to remain free.
The process has shaken Sal Shafi’s faith, both in his decisions as a parent and in his government.
“Every minute, I just imagine him in that solitary confinement, facing 20 years, because I cooperated with the government,” he said, adding: “It’s a horrible feeling. I can’t get rid of it.”
Less than a year ago, he had offered to quit his job and help build support for government counterterrorism programs. His message now to parents of troubled or confused children?
“Don’t even think about going to the government,” he said.
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