One of the first men arrested from a group of Twin Cities friends accused of plotting to join the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is expected to take the witness stand on Friday against three of his former associates fighting those charges.
Abdullahi Yusuf, who was charged in late 2014 after an FBI investigation and agreed to cooperate as part of a plea agreement, will testify against three Somali-American men who prosecutors say once conspired alongside Yusuf to travel to Syria to fight and kill for ISIL.
Yusuf’s testimony is expected to be a highlight of the trial. In preparation for that moment, the jury on Thursday was first exposed to an all-day crash course on the modern history of Middle Eastern unrest, the rise of ISIL, and the group’s makeup and outlook.
Before Yusuf, the government’s expert witness on the subject will return to the stand Friday for further discussion of the Syrian conflict and the factors that gave rise to ISIL. The terrorist organization has become known worldwide both for its brutality and for sophisticated recruitment methods that lured thousands of young Muslims from outside the region to its banner.
Charles Lister, a fellow at the Washington, D.C., think tank Middle East Institute, walked prosecutors and defense attorneys through maps, mug shots and terminology during his eight hours on the stand.
The names of Abdirahman Daud, 22; Mohamed Farah, 22, and Guled Omar, 21 — each on trial on charges including conspiracy to provide material support to ISIL and to commit murder abroad — were barely mentioned. Instead, Lister summarized several notorious ISIL-made videos and terms that are expected to resurface during a trial expected to last up to three weeks.
Lister provided synopses for videos like “Flames of War,” a slick film with slow-motion shots of battle and the summary execution of men made to dig their own graves.
Lister said some analysts suggested the English-speaking narrator was from Minnesota.
During opening remarks Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Winter said Farah once ducked into a men’s room at work to watch the video.
Among other videos Lister described Thursday were those showing the 2014 beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers, and the burning alive of a captured Jordanian pilot.
Prosecutors say Farah once defended the burning to paid informant Abdirahman Bashiir by calling it an act of “qisas,” or retaliation.
Farah’s attorney, Murad Mohammad, later brought up the Islamic terms used in the case such as kafir, or unbelievers. Mohammad and Lister agreed that ISIL has “taken and perverted” their meaning.
Bruce Nestor, Daud’s attorney, meanwhile, asked Lister if it was possible for anyone to watch an ISIL video — of which more than 120 were found to be made in a given week last April — and not see an example of brutality.
A day earlier, Nestor asked jurors to make the government prove that Daud had seen the grisly images that will be brought as evidence.
“Theoretically, yes, but given the amount and frequency” of the violent videos, Lister said, “I would find that hard to believe.”
U.S. District Judge Michael Davis occasionally intervened, asking Lister to slow down and at other times to provide additional background on topics such as armed opposition groups in Syria and ISIL’s size over the years.
Later, after dismissing jurors, Davis allowed prosecutors to present a chart of the local men who either attempted or successfully made it to Syria to join ISIL. Among them was Douglas McCain, the first American killed fighting for the group.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty said Thursday that the government will show that McCain and Hanad Mohallim — a friend of the defendants’ and cousin of Bashiir — traveled together into Syria in 2014.
Outside, more than two dozen people ranging from family members to antiwar and civil liberties advocates rallied outside the federal building for what organizers said was the first of what will be a weekly protest during the trial.
Holding signs that read “Stop Targeting the Somali Community,” the group decried the use of an informant in the case.