FROM THE HEARTLAND TO JIHAD
How a group of young men from Minnesota were drawn into ISIL's campaign of terror
The FBI finally came for Guled Omar on a Sunday morning.
A squad of agents crashed through the front door of the house on Columbus Avenue in south Minneapolis, raced up the stairs and burst into the room where the 20-year-old Omar slept. Guns drawn, they screamed for his phone, demanding that he give it up before he could alert his friends.
Similar, carefully choreographed arrests played out across the Twin Cities and in San Diego that day in April. By day’s end, Omar and five other young Somali-American men from the Twin Cities were in jail, and Minnesota and its Somali community once again found themselves in the international terrorism spotlight.
No state in the country has provided more fresh young recruits to violent jihadist groups like Al-Shabab and, more recently, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Over the last decade, dozens of mostly young men have abandoned the relative comfort and security of life in the Twin Cities to fight and, in many instances, die, in faraway lands.
While the April arrests marked a major victory in federal efforts to slow the exodus of local men abroad, its impact on the families and the Twin Cities Somali-American community — the largest in the U.S. — has been profound. The FBI tried for years to convince some of the men to become government informants, and agents often followed them to and from work and school.
That sense of living under constant suspicion and surveillance can be corrosive, said Sadik Warfa, a community activist who has worked closely with the families of the defendants.
“It scared the community,” Warfa said. “It is in our best interests to work with law enforcement and to build that trust, and all the trust we have been building over the years was shattered.”
The case, with hours of secretly recorded transcripts and, now, heartfelt courtroom confessions, exposes how powerful the draw of jihad remains for a generation that has spent most, if not all, of its life in the United States. And it shows how difficult it is to stop.
Even as agents began tracking the activities of Omar and his friends, at least three of them slipped out of the country and made their way to Syria. Two are now reported to be dead.
Omar might have made it, too, but he and the others placed their trust in a charismatic friend from California who — in order to save himself — chose to betray them. Paid tens of thousands of dollars by the FBI, Abdirahman Bashiir would become a key witness in the case against them.
They called him “Cali.”
ABOUT THIS STORY
This report is based on dozens of interviews in the Twin Cities and San Diego with the defendants’ families, law enforcement, imams and community leaders and a review of court documents.
Circle of friends
Cali was 17 and had just finished his junior year of high school when, in 2012, his father picked up the family and moved from San Diego to the Twin Cities.
Parents of his friends recall him as a polite and respectful young man who would, after playing basketball, change into the flowing, calf-length robes that devout Islamic men often wore to mosque.
Around his friends, the devoted Boston Celtics fan sported hoodies and baseball caps, shot videos of himself lip-syncing to hip-hop, and talked trash when playing video games.
Cali was a rail at 5 feet, 10 inches, 135 pounds.
On the basketball courts of Van Cleve Park and, later, at Heritage Academy of Science & Technology, Cali fell in with a group of young men who’d known each other much of their lives.
Omar, one of 13 siblings, had a keen interest in social issues, human rights, police brutality and religion. Friends said he became involved in community efforts to stem violence after a friend was gunned down in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood several years ago. An admirer of Malcolm X, Omar would tweet his disillusionment with white privilege.
He had other role models. His brother left in 2007 to fight for Al-Shabab, one of about two dozen Twin Cities recruits.
Omar was tight with two brothers, Mohamed and Adnan Farah, whom he met in elementary school on Minneapolis’ North Side. Adnan, taller and younger, is friendly and gregarious, while the elder Mohamed, shorter and stockier, is more reserved and shy. The brothers were close, playing organized basketball and soccer through Somali youth leagues. They posed with wide smiles, their arms around one another, at Adnan’s 2014 graduation from South High.
Mohamed, the oldest, took his six siblings to school, tutored them and did the family’s shopping. He frequently asked his mother, Ayan, for a special prayer that he would become a schoolteacher.
Zacharia Abdurahman, a bookworm who loved geography, worked nights as a security guard at a battered women’s shelter. After graduating from Heritage, he studied computer science at Minneapolis Community Technical College and landed a coveted programming internship at a hospital. His mother, a school bus driver, and father, an interpreter, are Sufis, a mystical branch of Islam that has been persecuted and suppressed across the Muslim world.
Hanad Musse described himself on social media as a “Servant of Allah.” But his posts alternated between religious imagery and those of a typical young adult, sharing photos of a fresh new haircut or mugging for the camera with friends. Layla Ali, his mother, described how her son, raised in the United States, spent time living with her in Kenya, only to ask to return home to the Twin Cities.
“He said ‘Mommy, I have to go back,’ ” she said in a recent interview. “I said why, and he said, ‘Mommy, if I don’t go back, I won’t get a high school diploma. I have to go back.’ ”
Abdirahman Daud was the third-youngest of 12 children. Born at a refugee camp in Kenya, he arrived in the U.S. when he was 9. He didn’t know the whereabouts of some of his siblings and was raised by his 34-year-old stepsister.
Jean Emmons, a youth program manager for Eastside Neighborhood Services, hired Daud as a teenage intern. For three years she watched him work in programs for Somali-American children. “He understood the value of education,” she testified in court this summer. “He was a gifted athlete and in basketball games he walked away from conflict.”
It wasn’t long before these six young men adopted the new arrival, Cali, as one of their own. “Shout to my bro,” Omar wrote in a tweet to Cali. “My long-lost twin.”
Between two worlds
Their parents had fled the horrors of Somalia’s civil war and eventually made their way to Minnesota.
The children often found themselves straddling two worlds — mainstream American society and their insular Muslim households. They didn’t always feel welcome in either one.
When fights broke out between Somali and African-American students at Minneapolis’ South High School in February 2013, Omar pleaded the case of Somali students before the assembled media.
“We’re the minority here,” he said. “Why are we being attacked?”
Abdurahman’s father, Yusuf, recalled an incident from a year ago, when his son and his friends were spit on at a McDonald’s in suburban Lakeville.
“They are angry and it grows on them, the way they feel they are treated,” the father said. “People ask why these kids would think [of] what they’re accused of. They are very angry from things like this.”
For some, late-night basketball games were followed by trips to Denny’s for suhoor, the traditional predawn meal eaten before fasting during the month of Ramadan.
At home, they spoke Somali and helped care for younger siblings; with friends they quoted rap lyrics, played video games and basketball, and offered up fervent musings on politics, Somalia and Islam.
Musse posted on his Facebook page several photos of lions — a symbol of jihad. When three Muslims were shot dead at the University of North Carolina in February 2014, Omar took to Twitter: “Can someone define the word Terrorism for me please. #MuslimLivesMatter.”
And several of them knew someone who’d heeded the call to jihad.
Along with Omar’s brother, Abdurahman’s cousin was also recruited to Al-Shabab. Both are on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists from Minnesota. Cali’s family was connected to a controversial mosque in San Diego — its imam was convicted of sending money to Al-Shabab and sentenced to 13 years in prison — and his father was the target of an FBI criminal investigation that landed him briefly on the no-fly list.
It’s unclear just how long and how closely the FBI was watching them.
Omar was in high school in 2012 when he was stopped at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport as he tried to board a flight to Kenya. He checked no baggage and had only a carry-on gym bag packed with an iPad, a few shirts and extra shoes. He told authorities he was going to his uncle’s wedding. Later, the then-17-year-old told FBI agents he was going to his own wedding arranged by two uncles.
Daud was interviewed by the FBI in January 2013 and again that December, the same day he answered questions before a federal grand jury.
In 2013, the U.S. attorney subpoenaed his Yahoo e-mail account. The next year, a relative’s T-Mobile account was also subpoenaed.
“Throughout 2013 and 2014, the FBI showed a photo of Abdirahman Daud to numerous individuals in the Somali community who were interviewed by the FBI,” a recent court filing by his attorney said.
Families said the FBI has long been pressuring their children to become confidential informants.
Daud’s stepsister said the FBI approached her and her brother two years ago, asking them to cooperate as informants. They declined. “Our religion does not allow us to harm anyone,” Farhiyo Mohamed recalled. She said she told agents, “If there’s any concern that you have about us, tell us.”
Ayan Farah said that after agents failed to recruit her son Mohamed as an informant, her family felt harassed. For months, agents followed her sons, parking outside their Minneapolis home, following them to school, she said.
Omar’s family also felt the pressure. Hodan Omar listened through the thin walls of her mother’s bedroom as federal agents alternated between pressure and promises to her younger brother.
She said it was one of several times the FBI tried to persuade him to become a confidential informant. They wanted information, she said, and were willing to pay for it in cars, cash and financial stability.
“They offered them all of these things that were like, unimaginable; tell them that their families would live a good life only if they worked for them,” Hodan Omar said. “My brother was denying that he knew anything about it. … I guess that’s when they decided that they would just follow him.”
The FBI was scrambling, setting up surveillance operations across the metro area. At least a dozen of the agents involved in “Operation Rhino” — the office’s counterterrorism efforts against Al-Shabab — now found themselves investigating this new group of men seemingly bent on getting to Syria.
Expectations were high. The Minneapolis office is in daily contact with FBI headquarters and high-level officials in the U.S. Department of Justice who track terror investigations.
Local FBI agents knew that if they had any hopes of disrupting a Minnesota-Syria pipeline, they needed to penetrate an already-wary Somali community. They needed an inside man, but this group of friends was tight.
Guled Omar was deeply affected by the conflict in Syria, often posting on Facebook about the atrocities committed by the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad. In December 2013, Omar posted a photo of a young boy lying in the road, a rock as his pillow. “May Allah show mercy to the people of [Syria], and the rest of the [Muslim community]. I can care less about anyone else my own people are in such distress.”
Months later, Omar and his friends decided it was time to act.
In the spring of 2014, they began meeting to discuss how to leave the country unnoticed, and how to pay for their travel. They pumped themselves up by watching violent jihadi videos and ISIL propaganda and followed known ISIL fighters on Twitter.
The meetings included Abdullahi Yusuf, a skilled basketball player known as “Bones.” There was also Abdi Nur, Musse’s cousin, whom they called “Curry.”
Omar introduced Hamza Ahmed to the group and told them to make him feel welcome. Daud told the guys to download a messaging app that “the Feds don’t know about.”
Also at the meetings was Cali’s cousin Hanad Mohallim, another San Diego transplant. He was the first to go.
Mohallim was soft-spoken and thoughtful and appeared to be on the right path until he moved to Minneapolis, family friends said. In videos posted on social media, he joked about “life in the projects” of Apple Valley.
“Just another day in the life of a gangsta in the hood for me …” Mohallim says to the camera.
In March 2014, Cali drove his cousin to the Twin Cities airport, where he boarded a flight for Turkey. From there, he made his way to Syria, along with three of his cousins from Edmonton, Alberta.
The FBI didn’t know it, but another plot was unfolding.
A lucky break
The following month, Yusuf applied for an expedited passport in Minneapolis. He said he was going to visit a friend in Istanbul whom he met on Facebook. He avoided eye contact and was clearly nervous, and he aroused a clerk’s suspicion by what he couldn’t say.
He didn’t know where he would be staying. He couldn’t give a name or address of his new friend.
After Yusuf left, the clerk called the FBI. Soon, surveillance teams began tracking him. They looked on as he picked up his new passport. A month later, he deposited $1,500 into his bank account. The next day he bought a plane ticket to Istanbul with the money. The source of the cash remains unknown.
On May 28, Yusuf’s father dropped him off at Heritage, but he left the school an hour later and walked to a nearby mosque. A blue Jetta picked him up and dropped him at a light-rail station less than 5 miles from the airport. He took the train the rest of the way.
Agents stopped him after he passed through security. They asked whom he planned to visit.
Nobody, he replied. But, according to court documents, he carried phone numbers for contacting members of ISIL once in Syria. The agents let him go, and he went home.
Agents began tracking the blue Jetta that had dropped off Yusuf at the station. They learned that, a week earlier, the car had been involved in an accident. The driver was Nur. But by the time agents knew his name, it was too late. A day after Yusuf was stopped, Nur boarded a flight for Istanbul.
“I Thank Allah For Everything No Matter What!” he posted to his Twitter account the day he left.
A week later, he called family to say he had reached his destination and would no longer be in touch. It was a Turkish phone number. He later texted his sister through Kik, an online messaging app. “You can’t come looking for me its too late for that. we will see other in afterlife inshallah.”
The sister, Ifrah Mohamed Nur, walked into the Fifth Precinct police station to report her brother missing, then later went to see the Farah brothers. They couldn’t tell her what happened to her brother or they would all face harm, they said. The tickets just show up, and nobody knew when.
Once overseas, Nur rallied his friends to join the cause, even offering to provide contacts for fake passports.
That same month, Omar, Cali and another friend, Yusuf Jama, planned their own route to Syria. They would travel to San Diego before heading south to Mexico and on to the Mideast. At least four men from the Twin Cities had used Mexico as their jumping-off point to Somalia in 2009. To pay for his trip, Omar took $5,000 out of his federal student loan account.
In late May, Omar loaded his gear into Jama’s car for the drive to San Diego, but he was stopped by his family. The three men abandoned the plan and Omar redeposited the cash and returned to his job as a security guard.
Two weeks later, Jama — whose cousin had left the Twin Cities to fight in Somalia in 2012 — tried again, this time on his own. In early June he bought a round-trip airline ticket from JFK airport to Istanbul. After taking a Greyhound bus to New York, he was gone.
A little more than a week after he disappeared, Jama called home. He was using the same Turkish telephone number Nur had used.
“He called me, but he didn’t tell me where is he,” his mother, Alia Salim, tearfully recounted. “I don’t know if it’s Syria, I don’t know if it was somewhere else, but he called me. He said, ‘Mom, I left the country and I don’t want to come back.’ ”
Months later, she got a call from her other son living in Somalia. Jama was dead, he told her.
From late May through mid-June, five men from the Twin Cities had tried to escape the country. Nur and Jama made it out. Omar and Cali were at a standstill and Yusuf was in law-enforcement limbo.
By the fall of 2014, Yusuf worried that he would soon be arrested. He and his friends accelerated attempts to leave.
They practiced warfare at a paintball park south of the Twin Cities.
Witnesses say some young men would speak of martyrs or scream “Allahu akbar” — Arabic for “God is Great” — as they fired at one another on the course.
Omar, later discussing the outings in a recorded conversation, said, “We was literally treating it like it was real war, bro.”
After an Oct. 16 incident, in which paintball ammunition had gone missing, Musse and Abdurahman agreed to stay away from the park.
On Nov. 6, Abdurahman, Musse, Ahmed and Mohamed Farah hopped on a Greyhound bus to New York, ready to follow the route that had worked for Jama.
That same day, Omar tried to fly to San Diego, but the FBI stopped him at the airport. He again had no checked luggage and carried only his passport. He took to Twitter to vent.
“I committed no crime but I was denied my flight to California today this is because I am young Somali Muslim male!” he wrote. “I promise to take this to court!”
Privately, though, he urged Musse and the others to abort their plans to avoid getting caught.
“I said ‘Hanad, please don’t go. Please don’t do this right now, don’t do this …’ ” Omar would later recount in a recorded conversation. “He’s like, ‘Yo what the hell’s your problem bro, you a punk man!’ ”
Once in New York, the other four booked flights for Nov. 8.
“Nobody is stopping me from that border, any [one] tries to touch me, bro, I swear it’s a fight. ... I’m going to shoot them.”
“If our backs are against the wall, I’m gonna go kill the one who punks me.”
“I’m going to spit on America at the border crossing.”
Farah and Ahmed planned to fly to Istanbul, with Farah going on to Bulgaria and Ahmed backtracking to Madrid. Abdurahman and Musse were bound for Athens, through Moscow. Ahmed was on the plane when authorities pulled him off just before takeoff.
“The truth is I really didn’t know these people,” Ahmed later told agents. But video from the bus station in Minneapolis showed Ahmed and Farah arriving in the same car. Records showed that the men exchanged hundreds of text messages and calls.
The four men were given letters from the U.S. attorney’s office informing them that they were targets of a federal criminal investigation into terrorism offenses.
Later that month, Yusuf was arrested. Charges detailed how the FBI had been watching him since the passport application. But his friends remained determined to get away.
That fall Cali received word that his cousin Mohallim, whom he had driven to the airport, and three Canadian cousins were killed fighting in Syria.
One of those cousins was reportedly friends with Douglas McCain, a 33-year-old New Hope man who in August 2014 became the first American killed while fighting for ISIL in Syria. Records would later show that Cali had planned to ask McCain for help making his way into Syria.
It’s not clear when Cali found himself jammed up by FBI agents and prosecutors, but at some point he lied to agents, then lied again to a federal grand jury.
By January of this year, Cali faced a choice: risk prison for lying and committing perjury, or cooperate with agents. He chose the latter. He was given a code name, “Rover.” He was put on the FBI’s payroll and agreed to wear a wire just as his friends were starting to worry about others turning them in. But they didn’t suspect Cali.
In February, Ahmed was arrested and charged with lying to agents after the canceled JFK flights. The same month, Yusuf pleaded guilty.
Omar worried what Yusuf might say. Yusuf “told them there are meetings,” Omar said. “That’s the worst thing. I was mad as hell.”
Musse worried about Ahmed: “If he gives a deal right now, we can get locked up the next day.”
Still, they planned. “Nobody is stopping me from that border,” Omar said. “Any [one] tries to touch me, bro, I swear it’s a fight. … I’m going to shoot them.”
In a separate conversation, Mohamed Farah told Cali he was prepared to kill an FBI agent.
“If our backs are against the wall, I’m gonna go kill the one who punks me,” Farah said.
When Cali said he could get fake passports for the group, Daud gave him a photograph and a down payment. Daud would drive them to San Diego, where he’d sell his car.
As the plans to travel to Mexico via California firmed up, Daud’s hopes were buoyed. “This is the perfect time … this shows Allah I’m not about this life,” he told Cali. “We just need to execute.”
Abdurahman exuded equal confidence in a March phone call to Nur, their friend who made it to Syria. “We’re not too far bro, we gonna be with you, bro. Soon.”
But as the time to leave approached, Abdurahman backed out, asking for his passport photo back. Musse did, too, after his father learned of his plans.
Three would go to San Diego: Daud, Mohamed Farah and Cali.
In the hours before they left, Daud spoke with an ISIL member in Syria who gave him detailed instructions on how to sneak into the country once they made it to Turkey. They left Minneapolis the evening of April 17.
“I’m going to spit on America at the border crossing,” Daud said.
“Even if I’m caught, I’m done with America,” Farah said. “Burn my I.D.”
They talked about what they’d do when they made it to Syria, even naming two FBI agents in the investigation. Farah said he would send the agents a Twitter message asking, “What up suckas?”
Within two days, they picked up their fake passports in San Diego and were arrested.
Soon after, agents in Minneapolis splintered the door at Omar’s home.
Friends don’t call
After a summer of pleading innocence, some of the men are starting to turn. Musse and Abdurahman changed their pleas to guilty this month. They face up to 15 years in prison and have named their friends in court as co-conspirators.
On Thursday, Yusuf Abdurahman looked on as his son, dressed in a navy jail jumpsuit and sneakers, spent nearly an hour entering a guilty plea before U.S. District Judge Michael Davis. Tears welled in Yusuf’s eyes as his son described how he began reading the Qur’an with his father as a boy, and that devout Muslim faith drove his longing to fight alongside ISIL terrorists. As court adjourned, both father and son stood up. Zacharia looked over his shoulder at his family, nodded and gave a slight smile.
Others are refusing to negotiate and a February trial is scheduled. Defendants and their attorneys declined to comment.
Abdullahi Yusuf, who has been cooperating with authorities, was allowed to live in a halfway house and undergo deradicalization in lieu of prison time, but has since returned to jail for violating his probation after a boxcutter was found in his room.
Cali remains under FBI protection. He’s been paid more than $41,000 to date. His family declined to comment.
He was seen around San Diego in the past few months, attending Ramadan prayers at a mosque in the City Heights neighborhood, an ethnically diverse enclave that is home to many of the city’s 10,000 Somali immigrants. Residents there say his family was forced to temporarily move back to San Diego to escape the cold stares from former friends and even relatives who accused him of betraying his community.
Ikraan Abdurahman, Zacharia’s 17-year-old sister, has a difficult time reconciling the brother depicted in court documents with the one she knows: a peaceful, quiet, hardworking young man who, in many ways, had a typical American upbringing. There was summer camp in Maple Plain. Camping and horseback riding in state parks.
“He’s as ‘American’ as it gets,” she said. Her family and the others have felt isolated since the arrests, she said. “Somali people are afraid. They don’t call us as much as they used to. There is a fear that the FBI will be listening to the call.”
Throughout the summer, Andrew Luger, the U.S. attorney for Minnesota, tried to explain to the Somali community that none of the defendants were entrapped by the informant in the course of the 10-month investigation. “This was their choice,” he said.
The same day that Musse pleaded guilty this month, Luger announced nearly $1 million in public and private funding for programs to help counter extremism in the Somali community. Some local Somali leaders reacted with suspicion, saying the programs are just another way for the government to spy on their people.
And despite bringing down this conspiracy, federal authorities acknowledge that terror groups are still actively recruiting in the Twin Cities. Community leaders say federal authorities have told them at least 100 local young men are in the extremist recruiting pipeline, a figure Luger denies.
Abdisalam Adam, a local imam who sits on the task force working with Luger on the new programs, acknowledged that with each arrest, pain and surprise continue to reverberate through the Twin Cities Somali community. People worry at times whether they, too, will be labeled as terrorists. But he, like others, is pragmatic.
“My sense is this is something the government has to do.”
At midday last week, the shades were drawn in the living room of the Farah home in north Minneapolis. The parents, Abdi and Ayan, thought aloud about the fate of their eldest sons, while two of their youngest boys eavesdropped. They said Adnan and Mohamed were offered deals by the government — plead guilty in exchange for up to 15 years in prison for Adnan, perhaps longer for Mohamed.
Abdi took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. It was too much time behind bars, and they were far too young. So far, they were rejecting any offers, he said.
“We’re taking it to trial for both of them.”