Attorneys for two of the three men on trial on charges of conspiring to join ISIL argued Tuesday that their attempts to leave the United States were not motivated by a desire to murder for a terrorist group — hours after a prosecutor played audio of one of them laughing about killings portrayed in an ISIL propaganda video.
Jurors are expected to begin deliberating Wednesday, after closing remarks from a third defendant’s attorney and rebuttal from the government. Abdirahman Daud, 22; Mohamed Farah, 22, and Guled Omar, 21, each stand accused of charges including conspiracy to provide material support to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and to commit murder abroad.
“What exactly are these kids accused of?” asked Murad Mohammad, Farah’s attorney. “Is watching an ISIL video an agreement to kill anyone or provide material support? Is wanting to die as a martyr, no matter how unsavory that may be to accept, a crime?”
Each of the three faces potential lifetime federal prison sentences if found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. A prosecutor on Tuesday said each made “exceptionally persistent efforts” to join and fight with ISIL between 2014 and 2015 and knew they would be tasked with killing others once they made it to Syria.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty recalled remarks caught on tape and played at trial by each of the three. On one, Omar said he would kill Turkish security officers, calling them “freaking pigs.” On another recording Daud seemed to pine for the chance to use an AK-47 assault rifle. And Farah laughed about an ISIL video that featured prisoners being shot in the head and thrown into the river.
“It’s hard to know what exactly is so funny about this video,” Docherty said as jurors saw screen shots of prisoners begging for their lives.
Conversations recorded by paid FBI informant Abdirahman Bashiir are at the heart of the yearlong FBI investigation that led to charges against 10 men — six of whom have pleaded guilty while another reportedly made it to Syria. These recordings again played heavily in closing arguments from both sides on Tuesday.
Bashiir testified earlier this month that he once also tried to join ISIL but began cooperating after four cousins died fighting in Syria and after he was caught lying to a grand jury. His involvement has prompted weekly protests outside the federal courthouse over claims of entrapment. But on Tuesday, Docherty told jurors that the audiotapes offered a “fly-on-the-wall view of this conspiracy.”
“If you disagree with me … the tapes are still there,” Docherty said. “And in those tapes the three defendants convict themselves with the words that come out of their own mouths.”
Docherty broke the conspiracy down into three phases, beginning with the departure of Bashiir’s cousin Hanad Mohallim in March 2014. After a group began meeting to discuss the Syrian conflict, Docherty said talk turned to attempts to leave the country either by first sneaking into Mexico or flying to Turkey, where co-conspirators would cross into Syria. Two men — Abdi Nur and Yusuf Jama — were the only two from the group who successfully made it abroad to join ISIL. Nur was later charged in this case while Jama reportedly was killed in 2014.
Docherty said the second phase, in November 2014, featured Omar being stopped from flying to California two days before agents also stopped Farah and three others from flying out of New York to Europe after they took Greyhound buses to the East Coast.
The third phase was a plot presented by Bashiir, by then an informant, to get fake passports and fly out of Mexico. Daud and Farah were arrested in a warehouse near the Mexican border after they drove there with Bashiir to meet an undercover agent posing as a source for procuring fake Canadian passports.
Docherty rejected any claims of entrapment on Tuesday, arguing that the defendants were given the opportunity, not persuaded, to commit crimes “they long yearned to do.”
Daud’s attorney, Bruce Nestor, targeted the government’s three key witnesses in the trial, calling the trio “a three-legged stool that you wouldn’t let your child sit on.” He asked jurors to reject the testimony of Abdullahi Yusuf — who admitted to trying to fly to Syria in May 2014 — over inconsistencies as to whether it was Nur or Daud who supplied ISIL fighters’ numbers to call if he reached Turkey.
“He can’t be believed,” Nestor said.
Nestor said the testimony of Abdirizak Warsame, another co-defendant who took the stand after pleading guilty, was tainted because he had months to review news coverage and court documents before entering his plea in February.
And Bashiir was a “paid true believer” who threw himself into his FBI cooperation “with the same zeal and belief that he previously demonstrated on behalf of [ISIL],” Nestor said.
He suggested that Daud jumped at what Bashiir called a “golden ticket” out of the country at a time when Daud believed he would be arrested after months of FBI surveillance.
Like Mohammad earlier, Nestor also cast doubt over what exactly was conveyed by secretly recorded audio that included Daud’s voice. On one conversation Bashiir taped as they drove into California, Daud discussed the likelihood of being martyred before they even reached training camp in Syria.
If anything, Nestor said, “This is a sad recognition of the reality of what he’s getting himself into.”
“Mr. Daud did not have murder on his mind,” Nestor said. “He did not join a conspiracy to commit murder.”