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To this man, Islamic State's ideology 'just made sense.' Now, he rejects extremism

Melissa Etehad, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

NEWARK, N.J. -- On a rainy morning, Imran Rabbani returned to the Essex County Juvenile Detention Center so he could reunite with his former keepers.

Four years before, Rabbani had arrived at the facility in shackles after being swept up in an Islamic State-inspired plot to set off a pressure-cooker bomb in New York. He was 17.

Now, just starting his third semester at New York University, the 22-year-old Rabbani wanted to give thanks to the people who guided him away from Islamist extremism. As he waited in the library last summer, glancing at books that had proved crucial to his transformation, the room slowly filled with city officials, staff and guards.

Rabbani spotted Capt. Robert Woodson and leaned in for a hug. After they embraced, Rabbani began sharing memories. The room quickly fell silent as people fixed their eyes on the pair.

"Remember how you'd allow me and other inmates to eat snacks while we watched 'The Wire' inside the library? And that other time you allowed me to pray in private and then call my mom?" Rabbani asked.

"I remember," Woodson replied. "You and the other inmates were like my children. I love all of you."


Rabbani placed his hand on Woodson's shoulder as tears fell down both their faces.

"I never expected a prison guard, let alone a captain, to treat me like that and with kindness," he said.

Looking back on his time in custody, Rabbani now sees that kindness and education as the keys to what friends, family and law enforcement say was an unexpected transformation -- a change that ultimately helped deepen and enrich his identity as an American Muslim.

The son of Pakistani immigrants, Rabbani struggled to fit in while growing up in New York. He felt like an outsider, never fully identifying as American or Pakistani.


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