To hear Guled Omar tell it, a spring 2015 offer from a friend — who was by then a paid informant — to get him a fake passport was a tempting if troubling prospect when the FBI seemed to be closing in on him and his friends.
Omar, one of three men on trial accused of plotting to join ISIL, took the witness stand Thursday after the prosecution rested its case late into the federal trial’s third week.
Under more than three hours of questioning by his attorney, Glenn Bruder, Omar rebutted allegations ranging from the purposes for several failed travel attempts, connections to friends who joined the terror group and his brief role as emir, or leader, of a circle of Somali-American friends accused of conspiring to travel to Syria. He also turned his attention to the government’s star witness: Abdirahman Bashiir, a 20-year-old former co-conspirator turned FBI informant.
Bashiir previously testified that he passed an undercover agent off as a criminal who could get the group fake passports that they could use to get to Syria. The other two defendants at trial — Abdirahman Daud and Mohamed Farah — both accepted Bashiir’s offer to drive to California to meet the source, and were arrested inside a warehouse near the Mexican border. On Thursday, jurors watched video of the arrest, which featured flash-bang grenades and a swarm of SWAT team members filling the warehouse.
Omar later testified that Bashiir also urged him to get out of the country. Two friends — Abdullahi Yusuf and Hamza Ahmed — had already been arrested and the rest were next, he said. According to Omar’s testimony, Bashiir told him Syria was the only place where he could go.
“I was having a fight between two sides of me,” Omar said. “One saying you’re going down, you’re going to go to prison; the other side saying you haven’t done anything wrong,”
Bashiir told him the pilgrimage to Syria would produce blessings for his family back in the United States.
“Your brother [Ahmed] in Somalia,” Bruder said in reference to Omar’s older brother who joined Al-Shabab, “When he left did it bless your family?”
“Did it bless my family? No, it ruined my family,” Omar said.
Omar broke down and the mothers of the other two defendants left the gallery sobbing as he testified about his mother’s anguish over losing his brother.
“I personally never got to ask him why he left us,” Omar said.
Prosecutors have said that Omar drove to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport with two men who joined Al-Shabab in 2012.
Murder conspiracy argued
Omar is the only defendant to testify in the trial, now in its third week at the Minneapolis federal courthouse. Omar, 21; Daud, 22, and Farah, 22, are each standing trial on charges that include conspiracy to provide material support to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and to commit murder abroad. The latter charge carries a potential life sentence. Six others pleaded guilty.
For the third week, a few dozen supporters gathered outside the courthouse to protest what they argued was entrapment by the FBI informant. Jurors will be instructed by Judge Michael Davis to reject any such argument if they believe the government proved that the defendants intended to commit any of the crimes charged before Bashiir’s involvement and without his persuasion.
On Thursday, mothers of the defendants again voiced disbelief that their sons face the potential of life in prison without having actually joined ISIL or killing anyone. In a nod at recorded conversations introduced at trial, Daud’s mother, Farhiyo Mohamed, said she could not comprehend the possibility that her son could face a life sentence for something he said or thought.
“It would be better to say that Muslims are different and freedom of speech does not apply,” Mohamed said through an interpreter.
Earlier Thursday, Davis denied motions for acquittal from each of the three defendants, whose attorneys argued that the government hadn’t produced enough evidence that the men agreed to kill once they got to Syria.
The audiotapes and evidence that the defendants watched and discussed ISIL propaganda videos replete with gruesome killings has been at the heart of the government’s case. Bruder argued Thursday that all the evidence presented was “big and fantastic statements” made by the defendants out of context and a series of videos depicting murders committed by others.
“Not all killings are murder, but these killings are, and these killings are the acts that we saw on the video tapes,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty. Those acts, he said, inspired the men to undertake similar action for ISIL once in Syria.
Omar testified Thursday that some of the ISIL videos shown to jurors this month were also new to him — such as the burning death of a Jordanian pilot.
“What was your reaction to that,” Bruder asked.
“Holy [expletive],” Omar said. “Excuse my language. I couldn’t believe it.”
Wearing a gray suit and tie, Omar raised his voice excitedly when recounting events and grew animated while refuting some of the charges.
His May 2014 planned road trip to California with Bashiir and Yusuf Jama — who later joined ISIL — and failed attempt to fly out west in November 2014 weren’t plots to cross into Mexico, he said. They were instead a vacation to cap a good first year of college and to see a girl he met online, respectively.
An earlier attempt, in 2012, to fly to Kenya was an arranged, if illegitimate, marriage to his cousin to bring her to the United States, not an effort to follow his brother to Al-Shabab, he said.
His testimony clashed with charges that in the spring of 2014 he was once appointed the leader of the group conspiring to leave the country. Instead, Omar said, he was chosen to lead an Islamic studies group.
“The term emir doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the big leader the way it has been portrayed at this trial,” he said.
Omar said Abdullahi Yusuf, who pleaded guilty and testified earlier this month, eventually joined the study group and brought with him an interest in the Syrian conflict. Yusuf previously testified that Omar gave him $200 for his passport before he was stopped trying to fly out of Minnesota in May 2014.
“That’s a big lie,” Omar said. “I didn’t give him $200. I never gave him more than $20 to go eat.”
Omar painted a picture of an upbringing not unlike many teenagers: He played sports with friends and met several eventual co-defendants through basketball. He also couldn’t get enough of social media, and said he self-medicated with marijuana and prescription pills.
He said Abdi Nur, the only one of 10 defendants in the case to be charged in absentia after reportedly joining ISIL, was a friend but that he didn’t know of his plans to travel in May 2014. When Yusuf joined the study group, Omar said, he told the others that his best friend, Hanad Mohallim, had made it to Syria to fight “for the sake of God.”
Descriptions of that conflict hit home for Omar, born in a refugee camp in Kenya. Up until his arrest, he said, his mother still awoke screaming from nightmares borne out of her experiences during Somalia’s civil war.
“When I’d see other mothers and other women going through what my mother went through,” Omar said, “I wanted to know more about what was going on and what I could do.”