Fearing their arrests were imminent, seven Somali-American men tried to get out of the country last spring to fight alongside terrorists in Syria before FBI agents could catch up to them, according to new evidence released Friday by federal prosecutors.
After one of their co-conspirators, Abdullahi Yusuf, was stopped from boarding a plane in May 2014, they feared he would turn against them and reveal their extensive plot that included acquiring fake passports and assistance from fighters in Syria with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Those fighters included Douglas McAuthur McCain, formerly of New Hope, who was to become the first American killed fighting for ISIL.
In recorded conversations, two conspirators worried aloud that Yusuf would cooperate with authorities — which he did. After pleading guilty last winter, Yusuf agreed to assist the FBI. The remaining defendants await trial.
“Abdullahi told them there are meetings,” defendant Guled Omar said of the plot. “That’s the worst thing. I was mad as hell.”
A few weeks later, two other defendants discussed another friend, Hamza Ahmed, who was arrested in New York in November.
“If he gives a deal right now, we can get locked up the next day,” Hanad Musse said.
Other alleged co-conspirators were more confident of success, documents show.
“They know we’re going to jihad, but they don’t have the evidence,” Zacharia Abdurahman said to an FBI confidential informant who was recording their conversation.
The transcripts are part of a lengthy court filing by prosecutors in response to motions by defense attorneys who argue that the men should be released pending trial. They argue that the use of the confidential informant crucial to the government’s case is entrapment.
The government countered Friday that evidence shows the plot was in motion long before the informant, a one-time co-conspirator, began working for the FBI last February.
The men, all between the ages of 19 and 21, stand charged with conspiring to support terrorism by attempting to travel to Syria to join fighters with ISIL. After a 10-month investigation, six of the men were arrested in April — four in the Twin Cities and two more in California.
According to documents, the defendants knew they made a critical mistake in November 2014 when four of them were stopped from boarding a plane at JFK Airport in New York, and when another was stopped at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport when attempting to fly to San Diego.
After he was stopped by agents in Minneapolis, Omar, 21, telephoned Musse in New York and urged him 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 recounted in a conversation secretly taped by the informant months later. “He’s like, ‘Yo what the hell’s your problem bro, you a punk man!’ I was like ‘fine then. You listen to me, I just got caught up.’ ”
Hopes for martyrdom
Not long before their final attempts to leave, the defendants eagerly discussed their roles with ISIL and willingness to become martyrs — to die for the cause.
“I personally think that, like, I will get shaahada quick,” Omar said, referring to the term for martyrdom.
Others were enthusiastic about the prospect of fighting under the command of Abdi Nur, a friend who successfully made it to Syria in May 2014 and had since become an influential player in the plot, encouraging them via telephone and social media and assisting — along with McCain — with travel logistics. At one point Nur promised fake passports for the travelers through a contact in Mexico, but the plan fell through.
“I wanna go to Baghdad bro … Damascus or Baghdad,” Omar told Abdurahman.
“We gotta be [Nur’s] foot soldiers,” Abdurahman replied.
Nur is “is already learning Arabic,” Omar replied. “I should have told him to speak Arabic to us. He does that sometimes. He speaks good Arabic now.”
Even in the immediate days preceding their arrests, the men held out hope that, despite their earlier mistakes, they could still carry out the plot.
In another conversation taped by the informant, Musse told the others that if their friend Hamza Ahmed, who was handed the same charges in February, would refuse to cooperate with the FBI, there remained a window of opportunity.
“That means we have a good time for us to work this all out and complete the mission,” he said.
The motion fell on the same day Somali community leader Abdirizak Bihi clarified statements he made last week that more young people have recently left the country to join ISIL.
Bihi made the videotaped comments at a community meeting last weekend, where he added that more were on their way out of the country. On Friday, he said his comments were based on rumors, and no specific people have been identified.
“Yes, we have a sense of urgency and we are hearing stories from the community that some have left and others might go, so we opened a discussion to talk about that, but we don’t know [of] anyone,” Bihi said.
Bihi’s initial statement, first reported by Minnesota Public Radio, drew criticism from community organizer Sadik Warfa, who said it was interpreted as more than just rumor.
“To make substantial allegations that there is active recruitment going on in the community and there’s no evidence to back it up, I think is a very dangerous situation,” Warfa said.