The nation's largest ISIL recruitment case began its sentencing phase in a Minneapolis courtroom Monday, with relatively light penalties for two defendants who helped the prosecution and a third getting 10 years in federal prison.
Opening the first of three days of hearings, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis appeared to wrestle with the difficulties in sentencing young men who were convicted of grave crimes but who might still be amenable to rehabilitation.
The judge asked all three defendants before him on Monday why they sought to abandon their families to pursue a violent campaign in Syria which they believed would be a ticket to paradise.
"This case was built around a group of individuals who conspired to lie to their families, lie to the FBI [and] continue, continue, and continue to try to leave the country to be warriors for ISIL," Davis said. "It's the 'Fake it 'til you make it' group conspiracy."
This week's sentencings follow a long, dramatic FBI investigation of terrorism recruiting in Minnesota's Somali community. Nine young men were ultimately convicted of conspiracy to support the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL); six pleaded guilty and three were convicted in a trial last spring that also included charges of conspiracy to commit murder abroad. Another three will be sentenced Tuesday, and three more on Wednesday.
Abdullahi Yusuf, 20, the first in court on Monday, had pleaded guilty, testified against three co-defendants at trial and is participating in a rehabilitation program run by a Minneapolis nonprofit, Heartland Democracy. Davis sentenced him to time served, with the next year to be spent in a halfway house.
Davis told a quiet, packed courtroom that he had concluded that the federal prison system has no services to de-radicalize a defendant like Yusuf, and said even a short prison sentence could close a narrow window to turn the young man's life around.
"It doesn't make sense for me to send him to prison," Davis said. "I hope I'm not wrong."
"I won't let you down, your honor," Yusuf replied.
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger told Davis that his office struggled to recommend an appropriate sentence for Yusuf. In a rare move, Luger also commended both Yusuf and Warsame for their cooperation under intense community pressure.
"The hard work of rehabilitating those who seek to engage in ideological violence must continue," he said later.
The second defendant, Abdirizak Warsame, had also pleaded guilty and cooperated with the government. Warsame, 21, received 30 months in prison. His attorney had asked for 18 months, while the federal prosecutors sought 54 months.
Though they figured to receive sentences far lighter than other co-conspirators, Yusuf and Warsame did not escape a tough round of questioning from Davis, who at one point played a 20-minute ISIL video replete with battle scenes and dead bodies.
Davis also said he didn't believe that Warsame had fully shed his religious indoctrination from inside a jail cell in 11 months.
"I don't believe you're not still a jihadist," the judge told Warsame, comparing his decisions to plead guilty and cooperate to a series of calculated chess moves.
"For the next round of sentencings," which involves defendants who did not assist the government, "it's a whole different ballgame," Davis added. "So count your blessings."
Monday's third defendant, Zacharia Abdurahman, who was one of four men turned away at New York's JFK International Airport in 2014, received 10 years in prison. He pleaded guilty last year but did not assist the prosecution because, he told Davis, he was "a man of principle" and "my religion teaches me not to harm another brother."
Davis granted a lesser sentence than the 15 years recommended by the government because Abdurahman's family spoke at a community forum organized by the U.S. attorney's office earlier this year, and his father disclosed alleged interference by a paralegal on another defendant's team.
Abdurahman provided a lengthy, emotional account of the way he went from being interested in the Syrian conflict to being emboldened to join ISIL after the successful flight of one of their co-conspirators. His voice broke as he described the promise sold by ISIL that he would be dignified as a soldier.
"When I looked at the Syrian conflict, the whole world was ignoring their cries," he told the judge.
Abdurahman's attorneys objected to a provision in U.S. sentencing guidelines that enhances sentences in terrorism cases, saying they found no empirical evidence that terrorism defendants possessed a greater risk of reoffending. But they said they have not decided whether to appeal.
'He will not reoffend'
Monday's hearings drew a heavy crowd of relatives, friends and members of the Twin Cities Somali community in a federal courthouse thick with security.
Sadiik Yusuf, Abdullahi Yusuf's father, later said his son's decision to cooperate with the government jeopardized the family's relationship with the Somali community.
"We have seen difficult reactions from the community," he said. "[But] I am confident that there is a big difference in my son yesterday and today. He will not reoffend. He will take advantage of his future, and he'll succeed."
Yusuf's attorneys, Manny Atwal and Jean Brandl, said their client had "worked hard to reach the place where he is now and he wants to make a positive difference in the lives of other Minnesotans."
Speaking outside the courtroom, Warsame's mother said she had mixed emotions about his sentence.
"My expectation was my child to go with me home," said Deqa Hussen, choking on her words. "But I am happy with what the judge gave my son. I know he changed." Then, raising her arms toward the sky, she added, "Thanks to God, Allah. My child has been stopped. My son is alive."
Warsame's attorney, Robert Sicoli, later said he and his client were pleased with the sentence. Warsame, who has been in jail since December 2015, will end up serving a comparable amount of time to Yusuf, whose release on time served comes after 22 months behind bars.
"He's not going to disappoint the judge," said Sicoli, who figures he has spent more than 50 hours getting to know Warsame in the past year.
Abdurahman's family appeared emotional, but said they were not surprised with the sentencing their son received. His father, Yusuf Abdurahman, said he was happy that his son did not get the 15 years the government had recommended.
"I didn't sleep all night," he said. "Today carries a lot of weight and pain."
'I can't make a mistake'
Davis' sentencing decisions this week are expected to draw an international audience of jurists and prosecutors curious about his approach toward de-radicalizing young extremists and preventing homegrown terrorism.
The Minnesota judge introduced the nation's first "terrorism disengagement and deradicalization program" this year, and said Monday he wanted final say on each defendant's supervised release conditions.
Before sentencing Warsame on Monday, he appeared to wrestle with the risks involved in such cases.
"I can't make a mistake," Davis said. "If he comes back — he won't come back. What will happen is there would be something we don't want to think about. Because terrorists are different."