The government’s star witness in the federal trial of three Minneapolis men accused of trying to join ISIL told jurors Thursday that propaganda videos replete with beheadings and mass executions were treated like Hollywood blockbusters by members of the group.
“Everyone would be talking about it,” said Abdirahman Bashiir, a former co-conspirator who became an FBI informant. “Like, ‘You see the new movie that came out?’ ”
Though jurors watched several of the grisly videos with visible discomfort, audio files of conversations Bashiir secretly recorded for the FBI in early 2015 consumed much of the ninth day of trial in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. Defendants Guled Omar, 21, Abdirahman Daud, 22, and Mohamed Farah, 22, wore headphones and stared at a transcript of the talks, which included their last alleged attempts to get to Syria. They stand accused of conspiracy to commit murder overseas and to provide material support to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
On Thursday, Bashiir, 20, helped explain snippets of the often difficult-to-hear recordings he made from February to April 2015 as Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Winter repeatedly hit pause. Omar, whose remarks dominated much of the tapes played Thursday, took notes and occasionally smirked or bounced in his chair. Farah and Daud, meanwhile, remained unmoved much of the day.
In Bashiir’s recordings, Omar provided updates on Minnesotans fighting for ISIL abroad. By March 2015, Omar said Abdi Nur, also charged in the case but considered a fugitive, seemed “really sick or injured.”
Mohamed Roble, whose recruitment had not been reported until this week, was said to have taken thousands of dollars into Syria that he used to buy cars and pay for fighters’ marriages.
The tapes also shed light on a rift between Omar and Daud that began with Omar being elected emir, or leader, of the group in spring 2014 over Daud’s objection.
The group had a different emir in November 2014 — Musab Abdulkadir, who has not been charged — but Omar said Daud went behind his back and “hyped” others into bumping up their travel plans. That included a failed attempt by Farah, and three others who have since pleaded guilty, to fly out of New York City.
Omar also had been stopped from boarding a flight to California days earlier. “I begged them not to do it,” Omar said of the four who went to New York.
‘We would have made it’
Roughly three dozen supporters rallied outside the federal courthouse at the end of the day for a second weekly demonstration with chants of “FBI entrapment has got to go.”
The use of an informant in the case prompted discussion within the community over concerns that Bashiir’s involvement entrapped the defendants.
“From the beginning, the intent was to arrest our children,” Fadumo Hussein, Omar’s mother, said through an interpreter. “Money has been paid time and time again to entrap our kids. Our youth are not for sale.”
In his instructions to jurors, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis said the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants were either willing to commit the crime before Bashiir became involved or that he did not persuade them into committing the crime.
Each of the six who previously pleaded guilty told Davis they would not raise a claim of entrapment.
Before listening to the audiotapes Thursday, Bashiir testified about how he began to question his own once-defiant resolve to join ISIL.
His star brightened in his circle of friends after his cousin, Hanad Mohallim, made his way to Syria with Bashiir’s help in early 2014.
The two stayed in touch through mobile messaging apps. Mohallim and cousins Hamsa and Hersi Kariye — who left Canada to join ISIL and were later killed — encouraged others to join the terror group.
But after twice lying to a federal grand jury and losing his airport job, Bashiir conceded to an FBI agent that he was “sick of this stuff” and agreed to cooperate.
Bashiir described his early work cooperating in the federal investigation, which he said wasn’t completely truthful at first.
He withheld what he knew about an attempt by four men — including Farah — to fly out of JFK International Airport in November 2014 and brushed off a suggestion that Omar could be a “middleman” for ISIL recruiters.
“I lied then,” Bashiir said. “But in my head that was when I knew the FBI knew everything that was going on.”
Later in March, Bashiir said he traveled to San Diego to meet up with an undercover FBI agent so he could tell the guys back home he met a man who could make fake passports. He even confirmed the connection in a brief Kik message with Omar and took photos of the fake passports to show friends.
The news brightened Omar’s spirits, who reflected on tape about a failed attempt by the two and Yusuf Jama to drive to California and make their way into Mexico in May 2014.
As they tried to leave, Bashiir testified earlier, Omar’s sister jumped into the back seat of a rental car as he tried to pick up Omar for the trip. Omar’s brother yanked the keys out of the car.
Looking at an image of the passports on Bashiir’s screen, Omar beamed.
“If me, you and Yusuf would have went that one time … we would have made it,” he said.