Chaos outside the courtroom delayed the start of testimony Wednesday in the federal trial of three men accused of trying to join a terrorist group after agents rushed to break up a physical altercation between a witness’ mother and his sister.
Sahra Warsame — whose brother, Abdirizak, was set to resume testimony against his former alleged co-conspirators — was cuffed on the ground after a dispute sparked by her refusal to sit with relatives. Sahra, 19, dated defendant Abdirahman Daud at the time of his and other defendants’ April 2015 arrests and wanted to sit with the defendants’ supporters.
Amid a crowd waiting to be let into the courtroom at the U.S. Courthouse in Minneapolis, Sahra shouted at her mother over her insistence that she “sit next to someone I don’t support.” She was removed from the building after yelling at federal agents who stepped between the two, while other relatives attempted to calm one another.
“They brainwashed her,” said Deqa Hussen, the mother of Sahra and Abdirizak Warsame, of the other families. “They told her my son is not doing the right thing.”
Daud, 22; Guled Omar, 21, and Mohamed Farah, 22, each stand accused of charges that include conspiracy to join the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and to commit murder abroad. The trial, now in its third week, has drawn a steady crush of spectators and an enhanced law enforcement presence.
Testimony by Abdirizak Warsame, the third key government witness called, touched off the tense atmosphere even before he first took the witness stand on Tuesday. A midday altercation between his mother and Daud’s family prompted Judge Michael Davis to visit each side in the gallery to warn against further confrontations and vowed to bar anyone who caused any disruptions.
On Wednesday, a noticeable increase in plainclothes agents maintained a presence during Warsame’s testimony and outside the courtroom during breaks. After the morning’s disturbance, Davis barred a community organizer and supporter of the defendants from the building for the rest of the trial over reports that he interfered with efforts to stop the altercation and prevented a deputy marshal from taking his picture afterward.
Back on the witness stand, Warsame fielded questions from both the prosecution and defense over what he and his friends believed they would do for ISIL if they reached Syria. The government added murder conspiracy charges, which carry a potential life sentence, in an October 2015 indictment.
“It was a mutual understanding: If we were to go over there, we would have to kill,” Warsame told Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Allyn. “That was part of what [ISIL] did.”
Warsame, who wasn’t arrested until December, avoided that charge in a plea agreement earlier this year.
But on Wednesday, he cited gruesome ISIL propaganda videos he watched and discussed with members of the group as influential to his mind-set at the time. And he again revisited the influence of posthumous lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric killed in a 2011 drone strike.
Davis again briefly took over questioning on the topic of Warsame’s views on jihad at the time of the conspiracy.
“You understood that if you committed jihad you would die,” the judge said. “What attracted you to that?”
“The reward you would get and the fact that this life is temporary,” Warsame said. “If you were to go sacrifice yourself and go fight in jihad, the reward would be bigger. You’d save your family and save yourself.”
‘A little strange’
On cross-examination, Warsame agreed that he thought it was “a little strange” not to be arrested at the same time as the others, with whom he said he conspired to travel to Syria since spring 2014.
He previously testified that he was elected emir, or leader, of a circle of friends that in spring 2014 did not yet have travel documents. Those who did, including Omar, allegedly failed to make it out of the country by either flying or driving to the border with Mexico.
But Allyn later pointed out that Warsame was never accused of buying a plane ticket out of the country, trying to drive to California or dropping anyone off at the airport so they could fly overseas.
During a break outside the courtroom before Warsame finished his testimony, Hussen said she was “very proud” of her son for admitting his guilt. She said the decision has since triggered others to call her a “snitch” or “FBI spy.”
“In my religion, you can’t lie about something you do,” Hussen said. “You can’t hide.”
Wednesday ended with testimony by an FBI agent about a failed 2012 attempt by Omar to fly to Kenya. Prosecutors say he intended to travel to Somalia and join his older brother, Ahmed, in fighting for Al-Shabab. Omar told agents he tried to fly to Africa for an arranged marriage but gave differing accounts of how he came up with the money for his ticket.
Prosecutors said they expect to rest their case early Thursday after brief testimony from three more witnesses. Murad Mohammad, Farah’s attorney, will be the first called to present a case. Davis has meanwhile told both sides to be ready to present closing arguments next Tuesday.