The case against the three Somali-Minnesotans who contested the terror-related charges against them went to trial before Judge Michael Davis in federal district court on May 9. The jury heard a massive amount of evidence over three weeks and promptly returned guilty verdicts on all of the terror-related charges against the three men on June 3. Attending the trial every day and closely following the media coverage, I found that I had to be in court every day and take in the evidence with my own eyes and ears to understand the gravity of the case against the defendants. Hearing the evidence in court, I found it to be overwhelming, devastating and shocking.
The case is important, and the evidence was newsworthy. The number of defendants charged in the case grew to 10. By the time of trial, six had pleaded guilty; one had been charged in absentia and is presumed dead in Syria. The guilty pleas strongly suggested the strength of the government’s case.
Defendants Mohamed Farah, Abdirahman Daud and Guled Omar made up part of a larger group of young Somali-American men who sought to leave the U.S. to join the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria. Their friends among those who have pleaded guilty include Zacharia Abdurahman, Hamza Ahmed, Adnan Farah (Mohamed Farah’s younger brother), Hanad Musse, Abdirizak Warsame and Abullahi Yusuf. One of their friends — Abdirahman Bashir — turned informant, while others made it to Syria without being detected or charged in the process.
They are all young first- or second-generation Somali-Americans who freely took advantage of educational and employment opportunities in the Twin Cities. They all appear to be talented and resourceful young men. They had social lives centered on local mosques. They supplemented their education with Islamic studies. They are ungrateful for the good lives and conventional opportunities afforded them in Minnesota. They are all observant Muslims. They wanted to live under the caliphate declared by ISIL. They yearned to wage jihad and to die as Islamic martyrs. They hate the U.S.
The defendants moved into and out of the workforce at will. One worked briefly as a security guard. The informant worked on the tarmac at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport de-icing planes, along with co-conspirator Warsame. At one time, all three defendants also worked at a local UPS facility in a leafy suburb of St. Paul, where they enjoyed watching ISIL videos during their breaks.
In the spring and fall of 2014, the defendants tried unsuccessfully to leave Minnesota for Syria. Farah, for example, was intercepted at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on his way to Syria that November. Farah protested to the FBI agents who stopped him that he was simply on his way to vacation by himself in sunny Sofia, Bulgaria.
In April 2015, defendants’ efforts to make it to ISIL culminated in an apparent opportunity to travel from Minneapolis to Syria through Mexico with fake passports to be secured in San Diego. By this time, however, Bashir had appeared before the grand jury investigating the case with the assistance of the FBI and Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Winter. Starting in December 2014 or January 2015, Bashir turned informant and worked covertly with the FBI to record his friends. With the assistance of the FBI, Bashir ultimately presented the defendants with the apparent opportunity to fulfill their hearts’ desire with the fake passport scheme.
The heart of the case brought by the government against the defendants is conspiracy: conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization (by joining ISIL) and conspiracy to commit murder overseas (by fighting for ISIL). To support the charges, prosecutors called Yusuf, Warsame and Bashir to testify to the conspiracy from the inside.
Bashir’s recordings proved a nut that the defendants were unable to crack. In hours of recordings, the defendants expressed their desire to join ISIL, their regret over the failure of their previous efforts to make it out of the U.S., their commitment to wage jihad against nonbelievers and their ardent wish to die as martyrs. They expressed their contempt for the U.S. They thrilled to the videos of ISIL butchery in the name of Allah. They talked about their communications with their friends who had made it to ISIL in Syria.
The recordings demolished the defendants’ claim of entrapment. The recordings proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants burned to fight for ISIL and that they did everything they could to make it happen before Bashir ever started working with the FBI. Listening in the courtroom to the recordings with transcripts that made it easy to follow along was a chilling experience. If there was a star witness in the case, it was those recordings.
FBI agents and local law enforcement officers detailed to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force meticulously investigated the case. Prosecutors methodically proved the case against the defendants. Efforts to discover a “recruiter” who has attracted Somali-Minnesotans to ISIL appear to have proved unavailing. Growing up Muslim, receiving religious education and attending local mosques — the Al-Farooq Youth and Family Center in Bloomington was mentioned frequently — the defendants appear to have needed little more than the videos supplied by ISIL to recruit them.
In his closing argument, one defense attorney observed that his client may have gotten into a situation over his head. Contrary to the impression I went in with, the same thought had occurred to me during the trial in exactly those words. I would only add that, in light of his client and the rest of his friends and supporters, we are in further over our heads than they are.
Scott W. Johnson is a Minneapolis attorney and contributor to the website Power Line.