A 19-year-old Spring Lake Park man spent three months abroad last year as he contemplated joining ISIS before returning to Minnesota because he couldn't come up with enough money to reach his destination, according to previously sealed court records.
The allegations outlined in an FBI agent's October 2017 affidavit, the contents of which have not been previously reported, describe the most recent known example of a Minnesotan suspected of trying to join ISIS overseas — and at a time in which the frequency of such travel has plummeted.
According to the affidavit, part of a federal search warrant application for the man's Facebook account, he also told authorities that he was close friends with three Twin Cities men who were later convicted in one of the nation's largest terrorism recruitment cases. In an interview with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers last year, he explained that the friends bonded while teaching at a "makeshift school" that preached "very extreme" views.
The case sheds new light on a pattern some national security analysts say has been nearly unique to Minnesota. "We saw here in Minnesota that there was a substantial amount of peer-to-peer influencing," said Richard Thornton, former special agent in charge of the FBI's Minneapolis office and now a vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Whether that group is your friend that lives across the street or your buddies you went to school with … when that becomes your world and those become your influencers, you can see where you would want to fit in. You want to be part of the group."
The man, whose Facebook page lists him as attending college in the Twin Cities, did not respond to messages. The Star Tribune is not naming him because he hasn't been charged. The FBI declined to comment.
Public Facebook posts from the page searched by the FBI include references to the spring 2016 trial of his friends, who were charged alongside eight others in a plot to follow other Minnesotans to Syria. But he also shared a July 2016 post decrying ISIS as "psychopaths."
Within less than a year, the young man shared news of a March 2017 trip to Sweden, writing "Keep me in your prayers!" According to the FBI agent's affidavit, the young man was "on the fence" about joining ISIS at that time, and spent part of his travels searching the internet for information on how to slip into Syria.
The man was selected for "secondary inspection" when he landed in New York on his way back home in June 2017. He allegedly first provided incomplete answers about his travel and, when shown an image from his iPhone of what the FBI agent later described as "an ISIS flag," he "became irate" and initially refused to answer further questions.
Eventually, the man allegedly told officers that before his trip, he "thought about traveling to Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria." He also said he watched videos of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric who became an al-Qaida leader before being killed by an American drone.
Al-Awlaki's lectures remain popular online and, the man said, were the subject of teachings at the northeast Minneapolis school called Ibn Abbas that he attended alongside three friends arrested in April 2015. Those men — Adnan Farah, Mohamed Farah and Abdirahman Daud — are now serving federal prison sentences.
According to the affidavit, Ibn Abbas has since relocated to Columbia Heights. But the owner of the building listed in the affidavit did not recognize the name "Ibn Abbas," and told the Star Tribune that the only after-school tutoring program in the building has been at the address since 2013.
In his June 2017 interview with CBP officers, the 19-year-old said he no longer attended Ibn Abbas but "continues to watch extremist videos and read the teachings of Anwar al-Awlaki."
He allegedly said he sought advice and money from a friend who joined him in what he called an "ISIS extremist Facebook group," but that the friend demurred. His parents' refusal to give him money, the man allegedly said, prompted second thoughts about joining ISIS, along with a decision to leave the Facebook group and fly home.
Cases of Americans trying to travel abroad to support terror groups have steadily dropped, in large part because of territorial losses by ISIS and a shift toward propaganda that urges followers to carry out attacks at home. New America, a think tank, has counted three cases this year — including that of a 19-year-old Twin Cities woman accused of trying to join al-Qaida — down from a high of 80 in 2015.
"It is a little odd planning to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq at this late of a date," said David Sterman, a senior policy analyst at New America who researches foreign fighter recruitment.
The man questioned by CBP officers last year also shared Facebook posts by a friend whose online activity was tracked by an FBI investigation that the Star Tribune reported on last year. That friend, a former high school theater student, once wrote reverently about friends who made it abroad to join ISIS, and exchanged messages with an undercover New York police officer who contacted the FBI.
He has also not been charged with a crime. In February, he posted a selfie while working as a security guard at a Minneapolis hotel during the Super Bowl: "If you can't beat the system ... You gotta join the system," he commented.
"Many people can flip the switch off as quickly as it got flipped on," said Thornton, the former FBI leader. "[Maybe] you're removed from that environment, something happens that opens your eyes to it, you mature."