A 34-year-old Hopkins man who traveled to Kenya in 2013 and made contact with Al-Shabab recruiters was sentenced to two years in prison Wednesday for lying to the FBI about the purpose of his travels.
Mahdi Hussein Furreh pleaded guilty in 2014 and assisted federal authorities but waited more than two years to learn whether he would be sent to prison on the charges.
His sentencing, originally scheduled for Tuesday, was delayed a day when a key piece of testimony was called into question: a claim by probation officers that Furreh had been tracked visiting a mosque between six and 12 hours daily.
On Tuesday, senior U.S. District Judge Michael Davis grilled a puzzled Furreh about the allegation.
On the request of Furreh’s attorney, Manny Atwal, U.S. Probation staff sought electronic records of GPS monitoring later that day.
But Davis began Wednesday’s hearing by saying he had been given incorrect information. “When the information is transmitted through two or three people it shouldn’t be mistranslated to the judge, and it was,” Davis said. “Of course, I’m not happy with that. I’ll deal with that later.”
The charges against Furreh stemmed from the FBI’s investigation into the pipeline of Somali-Americans in Minnesota who began plotting to join Al-Shabab in Somalia about 2007.
Prosecutors said agents first interviewed Furreh in 2012 about two young men he dropped off at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport who later joined Al-Shabab. Furreh “falsely claimed that he believed those two men were traveling to Africa to ‘visit family,’ ” according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Kovats.
According to prosecutors, Furreh’s co-conspirators included Guled Omar, who is serving a 35-year sentence after being convicted by a Minneapolis jury last year on charges related to his efforts to join the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in Syria.
Before sentencing Furreh, who faced up to eight years in prison, Davis granted a sealed motion by prosecutors for a reduced sentence because of “substantial assistance” to the government. Furreh twice had sentencing hearings postponed in 2015, the same year 10 men were indicted on charges of supporting ISIL.
Attorneys for Furreh and the government said they could not comment on the nature of his cooperation.
‘That was a mistake’
Furreh left Minnesota for Kenya in March 2013 and was arrested weeks later by Kenyan authorities. They had traced an unexploded bomb on a Nairobi bus to the cellphone of a person staying at the same home as Furreh, who by then was trying to make his way back to Minnesota after rethinking his plans.
Furreh later would admit to lying about his contact with Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax, a recruiter who was indicted after leaving Minnesota in 2009 and is still considered at large in Africa.
In brief remarks about his travels, Furreh told the judge he “immediately saw this was wrong” after reaching Kenya. But Davis wasn’t convinced.
“Well, wait a minute,” the judge said. “When you went to Kenya you had combat boots and fatigues. So you knew you would be shooting people. … You can’t tell me you weren’t aware you would go around shooting people.”
Furreh told Davis he lied when first confronted by law enforcement agents because he was “scared and nervous.”
“That was a mistake and I should not have done it,” Furreh said.
Davis denied a request for Furreh to voluntarily report to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to begin his sentence, and family members wept as he was taken into custody in front of them in the courtroom.
Atwal had asked Davis to give her client either five years’ probation or supervised release for three years with credit for the time Furreh spent in jail in 2014. She argued that an alternative to prison for Furreh would serve as a reminder that, “If you make that decision to go join a terror organization, and if you change your mind ... there is hope for you.”
In an interview after the hearing, after consoling Furreh’s family, Atwal added: “You go back to all the people who left [Minnesota]. I wonder if any of those boys thought about coming back but said, ‘No, I’m just going to get life in prison.’ Not everybody should have to cooperate, but should you be rewarded? Yes.”
Davis, who has sentenced nearly all the defendants in Minnesotans cases related to Al-Shabab or ISIL, has handed out sentences in such cases ranging from probation to 35 years.
Kovats argued that in Furreh’s case, non-prison outcomes should be reserved for defendants who “do the right things right away” and whose cooperation with investigators is more extraordinary. Furreh, Kovats said, “should serve the same sentence for the duration he maintained his lie.”