Attorneys for five young Twin Cities men charged with plotting to join ISIL wrestled Thursday in court filings over how the upcoming trial might be affected by the disclosure that a member of one defense team, a St. Paul imam, has preached about jihad.
Some filings described Hassan Mohamud's message as moderate, and others suggested the government misinterpreted his use of the word "jihad." But two of the five defendants have asked for separate trials if Mohamud is allowed a seat at the defense table of Mohamed Farah when the trial begins in May. Another man, who pleaded guilty last year, said Mohamud interfered with his defense strategy and tried to dissuade him from entering his plea.
At a hearing Friday in Minneapolis, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis will consider motions that include whether to disqualify anyone from Farah's legal team.
The debate began last week after federal prosecutors disclosed that Abdirizak Warsame, a co-defendant who pleaded guilty to conspiracy in February, told federal investigators that he learned about "prayer during battle in jihad" from Mohamud's teachings.
Mohamud, a local imam who also has a law degree, is not a licensed attorney but works as a paralegal at the firm of P. Chinedu Nwaneri, one of Farah's two attorneys.
Prosecutors expressed concern that Mohamud's presence during the trial, or possible testimony, could prejudice Farah and other defendants. But Murad Mohammad, an attorney who has a separate practice and is also representing Farah, said in a court filing that remarks about jihad attributed to the imam were misunderstood.
"The entire conflict is a product of the government's paranoid (or worse) imagination that any theological or historical statement that uses the Arabic term for struggle implicates a potential crime," Mohammad said.
In an interview with federal investigators last month, Warsame told investigators that he once spent a few nights at Mohamud's St. Paul mosque and that "the message was always moderate and against jihad." He later told them Mohamud would occasionally speak to groups at other mosques, and he recalled a time when Mohamud "discussed individuals fighting in jihad" and how they prayed.
Two defendants, Hamza Ahmed and Abdirahman Daud, filed motions Thursday that included requests to sever their cases from the trial if Mohamud is allowed to stay at the defense table or communicate with the defense team in front of a jury.
Daud's attorney, Bruce Nestor, said the government's court filings "deliberately misconstrue the religious meaning of the term 'jihad.' " He also said it's unclear whether there's any factual basis for allegations that Mohamud influenced Warsame's belief that a "religious duty" compelled him to travel to Syria. But, he said, the extensive press coverage of the matter required severing Daud from the trial.
Another defendant, Guled Omar, did not file a motion to sever from the case, but proposed orders that included excluding testimony at trial about statements from Mohamud or not identifying him as the man who made them. His attorney also proposed not allowing Mohamud to sit at Farah's defense table.
Meanwhile, an attorney for another of the defendants, Zacharia Abdurahman, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy last year, alleged that Mohamud interfered with his client's approach to the case. His brief, filed Thursday, disclosed that Mohamud tried to persuade his client not to plead guilty through a visit to his family on the eve of his September 2015 court hearing. Jon Hopeman said there was an agreement to plead guilty among his client, Ahmed and Mohamed Farah's brother, Adnan Farah, after they had conversations together in Sherburne County jail.
But, Hopeman said, the night before Abdurahman's hearing, Mohamud called his father, Yusuf Abdurahman, to meet on the street outside the family's apartment. There, with the Farahs' father, Mohamud said all defendants in the case should "stick together and go to trial, and if they did, good things would happen," according to Hopeman's brief.
Abdurahman told Mohamud his son would stick with his attorney's advice to plead guilty, Hopeman said.
In a response filed late Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty said none of the defense filings came to terms with the potential conflict of interest posed by Mohamud possibly becoming a trial witness. "Simply ignoring the problem, or instructing trial participants not to talk about the problem, as suggested by several of the defense attorneys, is not an alternative," Docherty said.
Docherty said Hopeman's disclosure raised another potential issue — Mohamud's contact with other defendants in the case — and asked Davis to ask all the defense attorneys whether Mohamud has had any contact with their clients.