Seeking to send an emphatic message that there is “no doubt” about the depth of terrorism recruitment in the Twin Cities, a federal judge on Wednesday sentenced the final three of Minnesota’s ISIL conspiracy defendants to the sternest prison sentences yet handed down in a Minnesota terrorism case.
“It’s clear, and I’ve stated it the last two days … this community has to understand that there is a jihadist cell in this community — its tentacles spread out,” Senior U.S. District Judge Michael Davis told a packed courtroom. “Young people went to Syria and died.”
Davis concluded three days of hearings by sending defendant Guled Omar to prison for 35 years, and sentencing two others — Mohamed Farah and Abdirahman Daud — to 30 years each. The three were the only defendants to plead not guilty and go to trial, where a jury in June convicted them of charges including conspiracy to commit murder outside the United States. They were also convicted of conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the same charge on which six others pleaded guilty and were sentenced this week.
Addressing Davis earlier in the afternoon, one of the prosecutors called Omar, 22, “not redeemable,” and said he presented a unique case because he watched his older brother leave Minnesota to join the Somali terror group Al-Shabab, then applied those lessons to advise the current group as its emir, or leader.
“He was like a well that people kept going to to get … advice, and he kept doling it out,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Winter, adding that Omar “has blood on his hands” for helping two men now believed dead after reaching Syria in 2014.
Prosecutors sought a 40-year sentence for Omar, while his attorney, Glenn Bruder, called for 15. Standing before the judge Wednesday, Omar grew emotional as he said he didn’t want to continue down a “horrible path.”
“I understand the seriousness of what I’ve been convicted of, and I understand that I will not be able to go home anytime soon,” Omar said as relatives sobbed nearby. “I always had energy for justice as a young man, but I lost my way.”
But after passing sentence, Davis recalled Omar’s May 2014 attempt to drive away with two co-conspirators planning to cross into Mexico and fly overseas — foiled when Omar’s family intervened.
“Seeing them scream and holler and take the car keys … but you continued and continued,” Davis said. “You’re charismatic, and that’s why you’re being locked up for the period that you are.”
The day was marked by somber statements from the defendants, clashes between attorneys over their authenticity, and emotional reactions from relatives and supporters gathered at the federal courthouse in Minneapolis.
Outside, a multiracial crowd of demonstrators gathered, waving homemade signs and chanting, “No hate, no fear, Somalis are welcome here.”
Mohamed Omar, Guled’s older brother, stood nearby with a picture of his younger brother. He is on supervised release for threatening agents who arrived at his home to question Guled Omar during the FBI investigation.
“My mom will probably be dead by the time he comes out,” Mohamed Omar said. “He will not get to see her. Although it’s going to hurt us, it’s not going to break us.”
Seven jurors who convicted the men in June returned to see them sentenced on Wednesday. They witnessed a lengthy digression by Davis during Daud’s midday sentencing, as the judge acknowledged that his judgments were harsh, but not “an attack on the Somali-American community.”
“The vast majority of Americans don’t have the slightest idea of what the Somali-Americans have gone through,” Davis said.
“I do,” Daud replied. “I was throwing away the same life that they were saving.”
Daud, 22, was arrested in California in 2015 after trying to buy an illegal passport and cross into Mexico. Dressed in a suit and speaking softly, he bluntly outlined his thinking before the judge Wednesday.
“I was not going [to Syria] to pass out medical kits or food to the people I believed at the time to be innocent,” Daud said. “I was going there strictly to fight and to kill on behalf of the Islamic State, your honor.”
His voice breaking, Daud added: “I am certainly not being persecuted [for] my faith. And I was certainly not entrapped nor lured into doing any of these crimes.” His comment seemed to contradict a group of demonstrators outside the courthouse, who continued to argue that the young men were entrapped by the FBI.
Daud’s attorney, Bruce Nestor, told Davis he believes his client poses no threat to society, but conceded: “I recognize that you cannot and will not take that risk.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Allyn, however, dismissed Daud’s apparent remorse as another lie.
Daud, she said, “knows how to play a role. It’s just him playing a role again.”
Allyn described how Daud told Abdullahi Yusuf, the youngest member of the conspiracy group, to watch terrorist videos, and provided him phone numbers of ISIL contacts in Turkey. Daud was no mere follower, she said.
‘A road nobody expected’
In an unusual development at midday, both Daud and Farah were returned to the courtroom after being sentenced when prosecutors noted that they flashed index fingers pointed upward while looking into the gallery after their hearings. Prosecutors said the gestures symbolized “tawhid” — a tenet representing “oneness with God” — that has also been used by ISIL supporters.
In his own hearing as the day began, Farah, 22, told the judge he now disavows terrorist groups and realizes that extremist organizations such as ISIL “don’t stand for peace.” A day earlier, his younger brother Adnan was sentenced to 10 years after pleading guilty in April.
“We ended up on a road nobody expected,” Farah said. “Your honor, that’s the allure and the dangers of terrorism.”
Mohamed Farah, the eldest of six siblings in a Somali-American family in Minneapolis, was stopped at JFK Airport in 2014 while trying to leave for Syria and was later caught on tape saying he would kill any FBI agents who got in his way. Farah also looked back at his parents and siblings in the courtroom. “For them to see me today in an orange jumpsuit is not my idea for what a role model should be,” he said.
All three defendants sought sentences closer to 15 years.
“These are young kids, young men, that are battling each other, one-upping each other with their level of religiosity,” said Farah’s attorney, Murad Mohammed. “In essence they radicalized each other.”
Mohammed also said that, in retrospect, his client should have pleaded guilty with other co-defendants last spring before more serious charges were added to his indictment.
Prosecutors pointed out that in 2014 and 2015 Farah showed every sign of being a determined ISIL soldier — trying twice to leave the United States for Syria — and that he lied repeatedly to investigators while declining opportunities to cooperate with the government.
Davis, too, returned to the gravity of the crimes committed. As he had done Monday and Tuesday, he showed the courtroom one of the grisly ISIL recruiting videos the young defendants had watched: A 12-minute clip of one of ISIL’s most notorious propaganda pieces, concluding with the burning alive of a captured Jordanian fighter pilot in early 2015.
“Understand they were watching these for hours at a time, day after day after day,” Davis said.