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Can ‘deradicalization’ reform extremists? Michigan program to find out in limbo

man in the hallway
  • Michigan AG contracts for deradicalization therapy program
  • Program aims to prevent violence by young extremists
  • Treatment hasn’t started, plans in limbo amid staffing changes

LANSING — Michigan’s experiment in deradicalizing young extremists may be over before it begins, after the second arrest of a Traverse City man who had agreed to participate in the program.

In a first-of-its kind arrangement, Attorney General Dana Nessel's office last fall agreed to pay up to $10,000 for a pair of consultants to help Andrew Nickels disengage "from extremist organizations" and avoid violence through counseling and support, according to a contract obtained by Bridge Michigan through a public records request.

Nickels, 26, had spent a year in jail after using Facebook to describe plans to perpetrate a mass shooting in downtown Traverse City, a video threat he followed up with a Nazi salute.

Andrew Nickels
The Michigan attorney general’s office in August hired consultants to lead deradicalization treatment for Andrew Nickels, who threatened a mass shooting online. (Michigan Department of Corrections)


He avoided additional prison time by cutting a unique plea deal with the state that included the proposed deradicalization program, along with an agreement to testify against fellow members of the Wolverine Watchmen militia, who were later convicted for aiding the high-profile plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. 

But seven months later, the treatment envisioned by the state has not begun and appears unlikely to happen. Nickels is back in court after he was arrested on a separate domestic violence charge, consultants hired by the state are taking new jobs, and the prosecutor who spearheaded the effort has left Nessel’s office to work as an assistant U.S. attorney. 

The deradicalization program was expected to include regular counseling and therapy while exposing Nickels to people who had escaped extremist movements in the past, according to his attorney, Matthias Johnson. 

"I think it's a great idea," but no one ever contacted Nickels to begin the treatment, and he is now in trouble with the law again, Johnson said. 

"So it's an utter failure, in my experience." 


The program would have been new ground for the state in a fight against domestic terrorism and homegrown extremism, an approach focused on reaching young people before they commit acts of violence. 

Deradicalization is a relatively new field. While there are success stories across the nation, there is also a "lack of rigorous evidence" to evaluate its effectiveness, according to a 2022 Rand Corporation study conducted for the National Institute of Justice. 

Programs that exist are typically run by community groups that try to help people leave extremism through techniques such as emotional support, financial literacy and exposure to diverse cultures. Experts say individuals already burned out or disillusioned by extremism to be the best candidates for successful deradicalization.

"Attempts by formal institutions to deradicalize individuals sometimes work but often fail as well," wrote the Rand researchers.

Nessel's office in August contracted with Frank Straub and Sammie Wicks, director and senior program manager at the National Policing Institute's Center for Targeted Violence Prevention, which is also working with Michigan State University on a separate state-funded initiative to curb gun violence in schools.

Straub and Wicks were expected to support Nickels during his two-year probation period and provide services "based on knowledge, policies and practices to prevent targeted attacks," according to the contract. 

The state contract amounted to a “pilot case study” for what could become a more permanent approach toward rehabilitation, said Sunita Doddamani, who helped craft the Nickels plea deal as head of Nessel's Hate Crimes and Domestic Terrorism Unit.

The goal, Doddamani told Bridge in January before leaving the state for a federal job, was to provide an “off ramp” from what experts call the “pathway to violence,” which typically includes multiple warning signs, including hostile feelings of injustice leading to threats and plans of retribution.

Limited ‘bandwidth’

Nickels was at least the second high-profile Michigan extremism convict to pursue a similar therapy program in the past two years. 

Ty Garbin, who in 2021 pleaded guilty to conspiring to kidnap Whitmer, also testified against colleagues after voluntarily meeting with deradicalization experts, a proactive step that U.S. Judge Robert Jonker considered when reducing Garbin's sentence last fall.

Authorities say Nickels, who was 24 at the time of his arrest, was a member of the Wolverine Watchmen a militia group. He was not accused of participating in the scheme to kidnap Whitmer, but his sentence was reduced when he agreed to testify against three colleagues who convicted last year of providing support for a terrorist attack and sentenced to several years in prison.

Nickels never faced charges related to the Wolverine Watchmen. Instead, he was arrested in late 2021 after posting a Facebook video threatening to livestream a mass shooting in Traverse City. In the video, Nickels also made a Nazi salute while wearing camouflage pants, a tactical vest, a holstered pistol and ammunition magazines. 

Facebook sent the video to state police, warning authorities that the social media giant believed Nickels "posed an imminent risk,” according to police records. Officers who subsequently raided his home found an AR-15 rifle lying on the kitchen floor, along with ammunition “in every room of the house."

Nickels later told a judge that he had planned "more of a suicide thing" and "never intended to actually hurt anybody."

As part of a deal with the state that included his cooperation in the separate Wolverine Watchmen case, Nickels pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of assault with intent to do great bodily harm, less than murder.

Grand Traverse Circuit Court Judge Thomas Power sentenced him to two years probation last fall,  approving the plea deal but warning Nickels that he would still have to comply with other terms of his probation if the extremism therapy program turned out to be just "a press release for politicians... making publicity for themselves."

Doddamani said she identified Nickels as a deradicalization candidate because he was “relatively young, (had a) difficult home life, substance abuse issue (and) maybe some mental health issues” that suggested he was “on the pathway to violence,” she told Bridge in January. 

“So I thought maybe the services could make a difference.”

Despite their contract with the state, Straub and Wicks have not yet met with Nickels or "had any discussions with the AG's office" about doing so, according to Straub, whom the state also considered to lead a similar treatment program for Tristan Webb, a member of a neo Nazi group that operated in Bad Axe.

Straub is taking a new job and Wicks has a new role that is "unrelated to counter extremism," Straub said. The attorney general, meanwhile, is still working to replace Doddamani, and a spokesperson declined to say whether Nessel’s office will consider deradicalization treatment in future cases. 

Parents for Peace

Deradicalization treatment would be relatively new ground for the National Policing Institute's Center for Targeted Violence Prevention, which has conducted in-depth studies of mass shootings but had not previously focused on direct extremist interventions.

"It is very much a burgeoning field," Straub told Bridge in January. "What we're finding is that there are not a lot of (professionals) that are prepared to work with individuals that are attached to or exiting extremist organizations."

Nationally, he said, there are only a handful of groups developing similar therapy or other support programs specific to domestic terrorists and extremists — or family members seeking to help their loved ones escape such ideologies. 

That includes Life After Hate, a Chicago-based nonprofit committed to "helping people leave the violent far-right to connect with humanity and lead compassionate lives,” and Parents for Peace, a Tennessee-based nonprofit founded by the parent of a domestic terrorist.

It's not clear if prosecutors in other states have directed extremists into deradicalization programs, but judges have explored the concept, which initially emerged a tool for international terrorism cases. 

In 2016, for instance, a Minnesota judge ordered four men charged with providing "material support" to ISIS to undergo an evaluation by an international deradicalization expert. 

In Michigan, Parents for Peace in 2021 began working with Garbin, who was 25 at the time and had confessed to participating in the Whitmer kidnapping plot but not yet testified against fellow militia members.

A team of five experts from nonprofit used Zoom to speak with Garbin from prison in a series of three sessions, each lasting between 90 minutes to 120 minutes, according to court documents outlining the work by a clinician, intake specialist, professor, Army veteran and trauma clinician. 

Parents for Peace concluded that Garbin had failed to process childhood trauma, including physical abuse by his father, setting the stage for a “radicalization journey” that peaked in 2020, when he found companionship in a growing militia group energized by opposition to Whitmer’s COVID-19 pandemic orders. 

In a video prepared for the court ahead of Garbin's sentencing, Parents for Peace experts said that Garbin was not only "one of the best candidates for de-radicalization" that they had ever interviewed, but also an "an ideal candidate" to help deter others from succumbing to extremism in the future. 

"He's a young man who can speak to other young people about the mistakes he made — how to avoid the mistakes and what specifically you know he did wrong and how to fix it," Mubin Shaikh, a counter extremist specialist with Parents for Peace, said in the sentencing video. 

Garbin, whose family and attorney declined or did not respond to interview requests for this story. 

"As a country, we're going to have to be really serious about helping people like Ty Garbin, because as we speak here today, there are many of them out there," Myrieme Nadri-Churchill, executive director of Parents for Peace, said a video submitted to the court.

"Are we ready to take a public health approach so that we can act as early as possible?"

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