The resounding guilty verdicts and the prospect of life sentences for the three young Somali-American men convicted Friday in Minnesota’s ISIL recruitment trial will likely serve as a stark warning to the 50 or so defendants in similar cases pending across the country: Better not go to trial.
“We haven’t seen a verdict like this,” said Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law in New York. “It will cause a strong reaction.”
The three defendants — Abdirahman Daud, 22; Mohamed Farah, 22, and Guled Omar, 21 — were found guilty Friday of conspiring to support a foreign terrorist organization and conspiracy to commit murder abroad in the largest ISIL-related prosecution to reach federal trial so far. The case was watched nationally because of its sheer size and because, unlike the vast majority of other prosecutions to date, three of the defendants decided to contest the charges before a jury.
“It stands apart from the other cases,” Greenberg said.
Of the 90 ISIL-related cases that Greenberg has tracked across the country, 40 have been completed. Of those, 35 defendants pleaded guilty before trial and five were convicted by juries. None has been acquitted — a clear sign that American juries are accepting the prosecutions’ view of such cases, say experts who have studied homegrown terrorism.
“You only have to look at the numbers to notice that the acquittal rate is close to zero,” said Peter Bergen, vice president of the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C., and the author of “The United States of Jihad.” He’s compiled a database of 300 terrorism criminal cases since 9/11.
Greenberg said American juries appear to view terrorism cases on a different level from other crimes. In the Minnesota case, the FBI built a case around videos the defendants watched, conversations recorded through an informant, and the defendants’ repeated attempts to leave the country, which prosecutors cast as a persistent conspiracy to join a brutal terrorist group.
But none of the defendants actually succeeded, she said, which raises a critical question of how juries see guilt in such cases.
“Where is that line in the jury’s mind between immersing oneself in the content of ISIL and taking action — an action that can get you put away for life?” Greenberg said.
During the three-week trial, defense lawyers tried to pull the jury in the opposite direction, arguing that watching videos and boasting is not the same as taking criminal action. “But you can’t make this argument before an American jury,” she said. “It hasn’t worked in the past and it’s still not working.”
That may be a different standard compared to other crimes — perhaps a lingering effect from the shattering events of 9/11 that the nation has yet to completely resolve, Greenberg said.
“We are not there yet,” she said.
The case also underscores the two extreme approaches that the American criminal justice system has adopted toward terrorism recruitment cases. And U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger is a case in point, said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University.
On the one hand, Luger has been a fierce advocate for programs to stop the radicalization of Somali youths in Minnesota, programs that he has described as building resiliency in the community. The six defendants who pleaded guilty in the Minnesota case agreed to participate in such programs, and are expected to receive lighter sentences as a result. In ISIL-related cases elsewhere, defendants who pleaded guilty before trial received an average sentence of 10 years in prison.
But the three Twin Cities men who fought the charges and were found guilty Friday are expected to pay a steep price, perhaps life in prison for the attempted murder convictions.
“It’s a difficult balancing act for Luger, wearing two hats — prosecuting and prevention,” Hughes said.
Still, the convictions should create a greater sense of urgency for the almost universally young, male defendants, their families and the criminal justice system to use the de-radicalization and diversion programs rather than going to trial, Greenberg said.
“You want to find a constructive way out of this,” she said.