Two Twin Cities men accused of trying to join a terrorist organization in Syria were charged with conspiracy Tuesday by federal prosecutors, part of a continuing investigation into a pipeline used to recruit Somali-Americans to fight overseas.
Abdi Nur, 20, of Minneapolis, and Abdullahi Yusuf, 18, of Inver Grove Heights, are charged with conspiring to provide support to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Yusuf, who was stopped by FBI agents last May while trying to board a flight at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, appeared before a U.S. magistrate in Minneapolis Tuesday afternoon and was ordered held in custody pending a detention-bail hearing on Wednesday. Nur, who was able to board a flight bound for Turkey last spring, is believed to be in Syria.
“These two young men conspired to travel to the Middle East to engage in a campaign of terror in support of a violent ideology,” said Andy Luger, U.S. attorney in Minnesota.
“Since … 2007, our region has lost dozens of disaffected young people to terrorist organizations that would sooner see Somali-Minnesotans die on foreign battlefields than prosper in peace and security in the United States.”
A federal grand jury convened last spring is investigating the ISIL recruitment pipeline. Federal authorities believe about a dozen Somali-Americans from the Twin Cities, including two women, have managed to fly to the Middle East after being provided assurances of safe passage by ISIL contacts.
“This is a global crisis and we will continue our efforts to prevent Americans from joining the fight,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Carlin said Tuesday in Washington.
With Tuesday’s charges, he said, the U.S. Department of Justice has charged more than 15 individuals with offenses “related to the foreign fighter threat in Syria.”
Going after higher-ups
There were signs Tuesday that the charges against Nur and Yusuf are part of a federal effort to identify operatives higher in the terrorist recruiting operation.
Yusuf, who works part time at Best Buy and attends Inver Hills Community College, appeared earlier before the grand jury but declined to testify, according to Peter Erlinder, an attorney who represented him during those proceedings.
Erlinder hinted Tuesday that negotiations may be underway with federal attorneys to grant Yusuf immunity in return for his cooperation with prosecutors. “There may be more negotiations in the future,” said Erlinder, a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.
Federal authorities have made it clear to Yusuf’s family that they are more interested in learning who recruited him and guided him through a series of steps as he sought to fly to the Middle East, according to a source with direct knowledge of the case.
The conspiracy charges came a day after Luger met with about 50 Somali leaders in Minneapolis, briefing them on a proposed strategy of jobs and youth activities that he hopes to bring to White House officials next month. The program is intended to convince young Somali-Americans that they have a brighter future in Minnesota than in fleeing to fight overseas.
Community leader Hashi Shafi said he was saddened to hear that two young men might land behind bars, but said the charges are a positive development.
“This is going to be a lesson for others not to follow in these young men’s footsteps,” he said. “It’s sad news but it’s also great news.”
Shafi noted that fewer young men are known to have left to join ISIL compared with local recruits who left earlier to fight with the militant group Al-Shabab. He credited work by the Somali community and a more trusting relationship with federal authorities under Luger.
For community leader Abdirizak Bihi, the indictments create a sense of urgency as the Justice Department rolls out its youth outreach program.
Bihi said he believes that, in addition to online recruitment videos and social media, there must be recruiters working on the ground in the United States. “There must be somebody here to plant the seeds,” he said.
“The whole community is interested to know who is behind this, who the masterminds are.”
Court documents released Tuesday detail Yusuf’s alleged effort to leave for the Middle East, describing a careful effort to avoid suspicion.
Yusuf applied for an expedited passport in late Arpil to travel to Turkey, but could not provide details about his itinerary, saying only that he was traveling to Istanbul for a vacation.
Hiding from family
Yusuf also hid his intentions from his family, according to court filings. After his father drove him to the Heritage Academy in Minneapolis on the morning of May 5, Yusuf walked two blocks to a nearby mosque. With FBI agents monitoring his movements, he then took a bus to a light-rail station near the Cedar-Riverside apartments, then headed for the passport office in downtown Minneapolis. He used the passport as identification to open a checking account the same day. Although he was jobless, he deposited $1,500 in cash two weeks later into a Wells Fargo account in four separate automated deposits spread out over the day. A day later, he used a debit card linked to the account to buy an airline ticket to Istanbul, via New York, with a 23-hour layover in Moscow.
On the day Yusuf was to fly out, agents reported a similar pattern. His father dropped him at school and he went to the mosque. He was picked up an hour later by someone in a blue VW Jetta registered to the boyfriend of Nur’s sister. The car stopped about 15 minutes later near a light-rail station, and Yusuf was seen changing from a sweatshirt to a pink button-down dress shirt. After saying goodbyes, Yusuf boarded the train for the airport, a new duffel bag on his arm.
At the airport, he was confronted by FBI agents who stopped him from boarding the plane and started questioning him.
Authorities believe Yusuf is associated with a person only identified as “H.M.,” a former Minneapolis resident now thought to be fighting in Syria after leaving Minnesota in March. Authorities say the same debit card was used by Yusuf and “H.M.” — and an unidentified third man who later traveled to Syria. Yusuf traded phone calls and texts with H.M. days before trying to fly to Turkey, according to court documents.
The FBI agents were not as lucky the next day. Abdi Nur, who had purchased a ticket on May 27, boarded a flight for Turkey. In order to avoid detection, Somali travelers bound for the Middle East to fight often buy round-trip tickets. Nur reportedly became more religious in the months before his departure, discussing jihad, urging his family to pray more and to start wearing traditional clothing.
Once he made it to Turkey, Nur allegedly communicated through Facebook with a person in the United States, saying that he had “gone to the brothers” and was not coming back. He also communicated with Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, a charged Minnesota fugitive on the FBI’s wanted list who has ties to Al-Shabab, according to authorities. Hassan allegedly told Nur that his decision would steel him in the days ahead.
“Being connected in Jihad make you stronger and you can all help each other by fulfilling the duties that Allah put over you,” Hassan said. “Like us in Somalia, the brothers from mpls are well connected so try to do the same. It is something we have learned in 6 years in Jihad.”
Staff writer Mila Koumpilova contributed to this report.