Disbelief. Anger. Frustration.
Those were the immediate reactions of many Somali-Americans across Minneapolis on Friday after hearing the news that three local men had been found guilty of conspiring to join Muslim extremists more than 6,000 miles away.
After three weeks of testimony at the U.S. District Courthouse downtown, jurors convicted Abdirahman Daud, 22, Mohamed Farah, 22, and Guled Omar, 21, of plotting to support a foreign terrorist organization and to commit murder abroad, a charge that carries a sentence of up to a life in prison.
“There was not enough evidence for me to think that,” Abdikadir Hassan, 25, said of the guilty verdicts as he sipped tea at a cafe inside the Somali Village Market, also called the 24 Mall, in south Minneapolis.
Hassan said he knew at least one of the defendants growing up, having attended the same schools and prayed in the same mosque. He said he believes the jurors’ decision was influenced by the way that the Muslim community is portrayed by authorities and the mainstream media.
As he spoke, Goth Ali, a 31-year-old Minneapolis resident, nodded, adding that Somali-Americans are treated differently from their white counterparts — inside and outside the courtroom.
“If you talk, then they will manipulate, they’ll twist your words, even though we have the freedom of speech,” said Ali, who said he was pulled out of a security checkpoint at an airport after returning to the U.S. from Nairobi and questioned for nearly an hour, while his travel companion, who is white, was allowed through.
“When I came back, I felt a little like it’s not my country,” he said. Other Somali-Americans, Ali said, feel similarly alienated at times.
Behind the men, a large flat-screen TV blared news about the presidential campaign.
At the sprawling Somali Village Market, dozens of customers and merchants lined the walls for afternoon prayers at the same time the jury foreman read the verdicts to the packed federal courthouse several miles away.
Fatuma Abdi, 27, said that she hadn’t kept up with the trial, which wasn’t a regular topic of conversation among her friends.
“I’m sorry to hear that, but I don’t keep up with community affairs,” she said.
But others at the mall said the case exposed a cultural divide — between younger Somalis, who were born in the United States and are becoming increasingly integrated into mainstream culture, and their more traditional parents, many of whom fled their war-torn homeland two decades ago.
Around the time the three men were arrested, many community elders advocated working closely with authorities to stop the recruitment of local Somali youths by overseas jihadist groups.
Some expressed bewilderment at the #freethebros hashtag campaign that called for the defendants’ release. That campaign accused federal authorities of singling out and spying on a largely peaceful community based on the bad acts of a few individuals.
Mohamed Abdi said that he generally agreed with the jury’s findings, but that the trial had raised bigger, if unspoken, concerns.
“Every community has a generational gap, but with the Somali community there’s also a language barrier,” he said.
He contended that the result is often that Somali-American children find themselves caught between two worlds.
“If you say you’re in the government’s favor, you’re viewed as an evil person,” said Abdi, 35. “If you’re not in the government’s favor, then they might come after you.”
A ‘sad day’ for some
At the Brian Coyle Community Center, a popular hangout in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, the response was even stronger.
Burhan Mohumed, 26, a community organizer, had attended nearly every day of testimony in the trial until he was booted from the courthouse following a verbal dispute with security. He said that he had been shocked to read that the men, several of whom he called friends, had been convicted.
The verdict, he said, only furthers a perception of Muslim extremism.
“I think this guilty verdict really justifies whatever treatment we get now,” he said. “That’s what the verdict expressed to me: the full-out prejudice that they have toward Muslim-Americans.”
The reaction was similar at the Karmel Mall, also in south Minneapolis, where several Somalis expressed concerns about a lingering distrust of law enforcement and the judicial system.
“It is a sad day for the Somali community,” said Jamaal “Happy” Khalif Farah, co-owner of Happy Khalif & Laabane Barbershop on the first floor of the mall. “We are not happy with the verdict. It wasn’t honest. Everything was done in a hurry.”
Khalif said his customers have different opinions, but added that the community will perceive the guilty verdicts as “a negative thing.”
“The boys were lured into something they didn’t know,” said Yusuf Hussein. “This was a setup and they fell into it. This case was staged this way to scare the community. We are feeling very sorry.”
Mahir Osman, a customer who stopped Friday for a haircut, said he had followed the case closely and believes “these boys were not guilty.”
Einashe Ali, a well-known Somali DJ, said, “These are young kids. They should get a second chance. They didn’t do a crime.”
Liban Sheikh, owner of Liban Barbershop, also in the Karmel Mall, said that he had gone upstairs to eat at Ayan Farah’s restaurant when he saw Farah, the mother of defendant Mohamed Farah, crying. That’s when he learned of the verdict.
“They are good family. I have never seen them do anything bad. Their kids are known as good kids in the community,” Sheikh said.
“I am worried about those kids’ future. I am in a different mood. I am emotional. Life was supposed to be great for them. But now that will not happen. We have to fear everything now.
“I am worried about a lot of Somali kids [who] will be trapped [by FBI informants] and make the same mistakes as these boys.
“We are now all afraid of even the [Somali] community leaders. We think that they are surveilling us.”
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