In a courtroom crowded with relatives and elders in traditional Somali clothes and young men in North Face jackets, new shoes and crisply pressed shirts, the man in a baggy green prison jumpsuit talked about his transformation from college student to aspiring ISIL terrorist with chilling nonchalance.
“I will have to hear in your own words what you did,” said U.S. District Judge Michael Davis.
What followed was an unusual and somewhat surreal accounting of a young man’s story, which conjured scenes of impressionable kids sitting around their suburban bedrooms watching horrific war videos on YouTube, while unaware parents went about their business. It was a story line of a kid who spent his spring break not on the beaches of Florida, but in Minneapolis, trying to arrange trips for his co-conspirators to Turkey, and eventually to the battlefields of Syria.
Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame was one of the young Somali men charged with attempting to leave Minnesota and travel to the Mideast to fight with the terrorist organization ISIL. Warsame had agreed to a plea bargain with prosecutors that would set a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, but first he needed to describe his actions before the judge, and before a large gathering of his community members, many of whom were hearing the confession for the first time.
“How did it come up?” Davis asked. “[The plot] just didn’t fall out of the sky.”
Warsame, 20, told the judge how he and other young Somalis had been glued to propaganda videos, starting when he was just 17, watching gruesome scenes of murder and torture and listening to lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki, an American who joined Al-Qaida. At some point in 2014, one of them decided, “it was time to take action.”
“Some of the videos showed people from all parts of the world joining ISIL to start a caliphate and stop oppression,” Warsame said.
“You and your conspirators understood it was a terrorist organization?” Davis asked.
“Yes,” said Warsame.
Warsame said, however, that he didn’t know much about Islam at the time, and hadn’t read books about it. But the videos were powerful instructors and he was an easily impressed teenager. There is a reason why advertisers, and gang leaders, target suggestible young people. ISIL understands this all too well.
Warsame said the young men did not tell their parents, did not tell friends or their imam, of their plans. They wanted to go to Iraq or Syria to help their people fight oppression, he said.
“Did you know what you would be doing?” Davis probed.
“Combat,” said Warsame. “Fighting, shooting.”
“Beheading, uh, fighting with weapons against anyone opposed to an Islamic state,” Warsame said calmly.
The courtroom was still and silent. A group of a dozen young Somali men sat together, eyes fixed on Warsame.
“What was attractive to you about an Islamic state?” Davis asked.
“Going to war and bringing back a caliphate,” said Warsame. “Islam would take over the world and Muslims would no longer be oppressed all over the world.”
Warsame spoke of shopping for clothes and backpacks for their trip, and about clandestine phone calls overseas to make travel arrangements. He could have been talking about a college trip abroad.
“Let’s back up,” Davis said several times, leaning forward as if trying to grasp why a young man, in college with a bright future, would consider traveling to a hellish battlefield to an almost certain death.
“You said something about combat, did that include killing?” Davis asked.
“Yes, it did.”
Did it include murder?
“Yes, it did.”
Davis paused for a moment.
“Have you ever picked up a gun? Have you ever shot a rifle. Ever killed an animal?”
“No,” Warsame said to each question.
“Tell me, if you can, then why would you go to Syria and kill people?”
“Uh, at the time, I thought it was the right thing to do, and it was justified,” said Warsame. “But it’s not.”
Warsame said he started to change his mind when he got exposed to the dark side of ISIL while watching a video of them burning a pilot alive. “Too much killing, killing of innocent people. I was only looking at one side of the story.”
The realization came too late. Warsame was led back to jail, shooting a glance at his family as he left. He will be sentenced at a later date.
Outside the courtroom, Abdirizak Bihi, a community activist, took in the gravity of the testimony.
“Amazing,” said Bihi, whose own nephew was killed after joining a terrorist organization. “It’s the first time someone has really come forward to say what was happening. Did you look at the young people’s faces? He will help other children some day when he talks about what he’s done. I hope the system rewards that kind of honesty.”
Warsame’s mother, Deqa Hussen stood nearby, her voice breaking as she spoke. When she heard rumors of young men being recruited, she sent her son to Chicago to get away from “bad influences.”
“I never thought that my son would be a criminal,” said Hussen. “But he’s accepted it, he said, ‘Mom, this is what I’ve done.’ I told him to tell the truth.”
Sadik Warfa, a Somali community leader, stood outside the courthouse, shivering in the cold.
“This week in New Hampshire, people voted for someone who wants to ban Muslims,” said Warfa, shaking his head. He fears, he said, that “this will define our community.”
“I want a trial,” said Warfa. “ I want it all to come out, find out who is responsible, who are the big guys. Cut the snake off at its head.”