Jurors in the federal trial of three Minneapolis men accused of plotting to fight and kill for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) encountered one of the investigation’s key tensions when both sides previewed their cases Wednesday. What proved greater to the defendants: the pull of the terror group’s recruitment machine or the push of a paid FBI informant?
Conversations secretly recorded in early 2015 by Abdirahman Bashiir, a co-conspirator who agreed to cooperate after being caught lying to a grand jury, will play a key role in the government’s case. The recordings also set the stage for a confrontation to come between Bashiir and at least two attorneys who said Wednesday that Bashiir encouraged the men over their objections.
“The government’s case is based largely on an [ISIL] sympathizer attempting to avoid prosecution” at taxpayers’ expenses, said defense attorney Glenn Bruder.
Earlier, with a slide show using ISIL’s black flag as background, a federal prosecutor walked jurors through a conspiracy that saw a series of three flight attempts between March 2014 and April 2015. Abdirahman Daud, 22; Mohamed Farah, 22; and Guled Omar, 21, are the last of a group of 10 Somali-American men charged, and they face possible lifetime prison sentences if found guilty.
‘Our brother’s blood’
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Winter said jurors will hear Omar discuss in one recording his plan to share the group’s route into Mexico with ISIL fighters abroad so they could stage attacks in the U.S. “Imagine what they could do,” Omar was recorded as saying. “They could do crazy damage. I swear to god we have a big opportunity.”
Bruder called Omar “all talk and no action,” and said he “never even left Hennepin County.” Daud and Farah were arrested last April in an underground parking garage near the California border with Mexico. They drove there with Bashiir, who told them he knew a man who could get them fake Canadian passports.
Daud’s attorney, Bruce Nestor, never used the word entrapped in his opening remarks, but repeatedly claimed Bashiir “ensnared” the defendants. Bashiir had four cousins who had made it to Syria in early 2014, all reportedly killed in battle, and Bruder said Bashiir had boasted about driving one of them, Hanad Mohallim, to the airport.
As he recounted the FBI’s investigation, Winter noted that the young men tried to leave the country more than once, only to be thwarted by family members or stopped by federal agents at the airport. Others, like Mohallim and Abdi Nur, made it to Syria and quickly became sources of inspiration and information to their friends back home.
Winter said Mohallim’s successful trip, broadcast back to his friends with Facebook images of him posing near RPGs and AK-47s, precipitated “a beehive of activity” in the spring of 2014. When Mohallim was later reportedly killed in battle, Nur sent Omar a list of names and addresses of 16 American pilots he said were responsible for airstrikes that killed Mohallim.
“Those are the people whose hands our brother’s blood is on,” said Nur, who grew angry after Omar did not take him up on the offer out of fear of getting caught. Bruder later said Omar told Nur that the U.S. was “not a battlefield.”
Sister takes stand
Wearing suits, Omar and Daud appeared relaxed, while Farah remained slouched forward with arms crossed on the defense table during much of the day.
Hanad Mohallim’s sister, Hanan, 22, of St. Paul, was the government’s first witness. She said she last saw him in January 2014 before he disappeared. Although she never confirmed it, she suspected he was in Syria because their three cousins had traveled there. They exchanged Facebook messages until he went silent later that fall. “From what I know,” she said, “he is dead.”
Wednesday ended with the government’s expert witness, Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute, still on the stand. He is expected to testify about ISIL’s grisly propaganda videos, which prosecutors say the men watched and discussed while plotting to join the group.
“These images formed in the minds of the defendants a clear and unmistakable understanding of what they will be doing once they go to Syria,” Winter said.