Hassan Mohamud, a longtime St. Paul imam, made history in 2002 when he became the first Somali-American to earn a law degree in Minnesota.
He has also created his own share of controversy, having been asked to clarify his remarks ranging from scholars’ views on suicide bombings to a claim that his mosque could save the faithful from “the hell of living in America.”
Law and controversy collided last month when allegations about Mohamud’s conduct triggered a wave of legal turmoil in the case of a group of young Twin Cities Somali-Americans awaiting trial on charges that they supported the terrorist group known as ISIL.
Two of the five remaining defendants who were set for trial in May pleaded guilty recently after evidence suggested that Mohamud had interfered in their families’ deliberations as they considered plea deals last year. Mohamud and an attorney for whom he works, meanwhile, withdrew from representing another defendant after prosecutors said a co-conspirator would testify at trial that he had once heard Mohamud discussing how to pray while “battling in jihad” — testimony that might have prejudiced the proceedings.
The episode also underscored an ongoing divide within the state’s large Somali-American community.
Both defense attorneys and prosecutors in the case have expressed concerns over suggestions that Mohamud exerted influence on defendants he was not hired to represent in what is one of the biggest ISIL recruit cases in the country.
Supporters, meanwhile, say the developments were character attacks on Mohamud in retaliation for his vocal opposition to government programs aimed at countering terror recruitment. They say his hours spent each week mentoring hundreds of Twin Cities youths go overlooked.
“It’s different opinions,” said Hamdy El-Sawaf, a Minneapolis imam and psychotherapist. “It’s why not all of us are sitting down to find out what would be the best approach. … We did not get together enough to approach those things, deeply and frankly.”
Suddenly he was alone
One controversy over the imam’s behavior emerged this spring when an attorney alleged that Mohamud had behind-the-scenes conversations with the families of two defendants in the ISIL case while three of them weighed the delicate question of whether to accept plea offers from federal prosecutors.
Zacharia Abdurahman, one of 10 Twin Cities men charged with supporting ISIL after a yearlong federal probe, showed up in court in September and was surprised to find himself alone. He had spent weeks discussing whether to take a deal with two other defendants, Adnan Farah and Hamza Ahmed, while they were detained in the same jail pod.
But the night before Abdurahman’s hearing, according to attorney Jon Hopeman, Mohamud allegedly called his father down from his home, where he was also met by Farah’s father. You should tell your son not to plead guilty, Mohamud allegedly said. “No defendant in the case should plead guilty,” he said. If they all stuck together and went to trial, “good things would happen.”
Hopeman’s disclosure caused turmoil in the case and sparked prosecutors to re-extend plea deals last month to Farah and Ahmed. Both had turned down the prosecutors’ September plea offer, and each had subsequently been indicted along with others on more serious charges.
At their plea hearings last month, both Farah and Ahmed said their families were convinced that fighting the charges at trial was a better option. Ahmed conceded that somebody must have dissuaded his mother from recommending the deal.
Both hearings occurred on unusually short notice, apparently over fears that someone would try to intervene again.
“I was concerned the parents [or] I was concerned maybe Hassan would influence him,” said Kenneth Udoibok, Adnan Farah’s attorney.
At the same time, Mohamud appears to speak for some members of the Somali-American community, who wanted the young men to fight the charges at trial and feel that somehow “the government must be defeated in one of these cases,” said activist Omar Jamal. Udoibok said Adnan Farah had to convince his mother that his April 14 guilty plea was the right choice, given the evidence available for review.
Udoibok said Mohamud was instrumental in the Farah family selecting him as an attorney after they fired Farah’s previous attorney in September. He said Mohamud helped the family consider his federal court experience, knowledge of Islam and African heritage.
“Having [someone] like Hassan, who is trained in law and also a sheikh trained in Islam … I think handled properly is a valuable asset the community would have,” said Udoibok. “So that you are not … googling someone and giving up your life to this person.”
In a brief interview last month, Mohamud said he had an obligation as a law clerk to educate families about the American legal system. “You cannot twist that into pressuring the family,” he said.
Abdirizak Bihi, another longtime community activist, said imams play an important role in guiding families.
“Once in awhile a fiery one stands out,” he said, but the community’s religious leaders must be central to any effort to fight terror recruitment.
“It’s the imams who can stop this,” Bihi said. “They can clearly stand out and say this is not Islam. This is not jihad.”
‘I have to shield them’
Mohamud’s Da’wah Institute in St. Paul has 500 visitors at Friday prayers and focuses its services throughout the week toward the 200 youths that visit, education director Kassim Busuri said.
“We’re a mosque but we end up doing community center work,” Busuri said. “Imam Hassan has sacrificed his whole life to save the community.”
Mohamud has continued to appear at community events, including a recent forum on Islamophobia with elected officials and law enforcement leaders, and even portrayed an imam in a film that debuted last month at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival.
At the Islamophobia forum, Mohamud closed with remarks including how “ethics or war-related rules” in jihad were more humane than those of the United States. He also quoted scripture on protecting one’s neighbors.
“No matter what faith they believe, I have to shield them. This is Islam,” he said. “It’s part of the faith to protect each other. If you have a bad apple … that does not count as Islam and Muslims.”