A federal judge again rejected bail Wednesday for seven young Somali-American men charged with attempting to join the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. It was the first time all seven of the accused appeared in court together.
“At this point, there are no conditions” for their pretrial release, said U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, adding, “I’m still working extremely hard trying to find the conditions that may be met.”
The trial is slated to start Feb. 16.
Davis had denied previous petitions for pretrial release, saying the men were a danger to the community and flight risks, while insisting that he remained open to alternatives to detention.
He pointed to the case of Abdullahi Yusuf, a former member of the alleged conspiracy who pleaded guilty to plotting to support a terrorist group and was moved to a halfway house, in a nationally watched experiment in deradicalization — though only after agreeing to cooperate with authorities, one defense attorney pointed out. Yusuf was later returned to custody for allegedly violating conditions of his release.
Several of the attorneys were visibly frustrated by Davis’ ruling, as were the families of the defendants, who packed the Minneapolis courtroom amid heavy security. The case has once again thrust Minnesota into the national spotlight as a fertile recruiting ground for jihadi extremists.
The motion was among several heard during the lengthy pretrial hearing. Davis denied most of the defense motions and sought more time to consider several others, including the disclosure of the identity of the government’s prized witness, a one-time alleged conspirator who later turned informant.
Defense attorneys argued that the federal government should reveal the identity of the informant crucial to the case against them. The government’s case is based largely in recordings by the informant, who at one time was a member of the alleged plot before he agreed to wear a wire in exchange for some $41,000 in payments to date from the FBI. His identity has not been publicly disclosed and he remains under FBI protection.
“This is a circumstance where the informant is an employee of the U.S. government and they’ve paid him a substantial amount of money,” defense attorney Andy Birrell argued. “It seems to me as a matter of fairness that they should disclose who he is and make him available for interviews.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty said that the informant will be called as a witness if the case goes to trial, but, “There is no need for disclosure just now and certainly no need for an interview just now.”
“This is a [confidential informant] in a violent crime case,” Docherty said. “We have told this individual we would do everything we can to keep he and his family safe, and we are doing our part to live up to this promise.”
The government says that for more than a year, the defendants were engaged in a plot to join ISIL, a State Department-designated terrorist organization, which has proclaimed a caliphate, or Islamic-run state, over territory it has seized in Iraq and Syria. A 10-month investigation into the seven suspects’ activities culminated in April with arrests of six of the men — four in the Twin Cities and two in San Diego. The other defendant, Hamza Naj Ahmed, was arrested in February.
The other defendants are: Zacharia Abdurahman, Hanad Musse, Guled Omar, Abdirahman Daud and brothers Adnan Farah and Mohamed Farah.
The FBI agents who questioned three of four young men accused of trying to fly out of JFK Airport — and eventually make their way to Syria — said the men were cooperative but annoyed when stopped from flying last November.
“He didn’t seem surprised at being approached by the FBI,” special agent Harry Samit said of Ahmed regarding their 37-minute interview at the Greyhound bus terminal in Minneapolis. Samit and FBI special agent Michael Lewis testified about their encounters with Ahmed, Musse, Abdurahman and Mohamed Farah.
Attorneys want to suppress the statements four of the men gave to New York FBI agents after they were barred from flying. Samit testified that he warned Ahmed that there was an eight-year prison sentence for lying to federal agents, but added, “I’m not trying to threaten you.” Ahmed’s attorney JaneAnn Murray had hinted that Ahmed was intimidated into giving his statement.
“You are aware that the individual you were dealing with was 19 years old, correct?” Murray asked the agent.
Lewis, an agent with the New York FBI’s field office, said the men he interviewed at JFK were “annoyed at not being able to fly” and “increasingly irritated with the questions.”
After the hearing, Mohamed Farah’s attorney, Murad Mohammad, said he hasn’t given up completely on pretrial release.
“There’s a lot of public safety implications and a lot of issues for the judge to consider,” he said. “I do believe he’s willing to consider alternative proposals, but one hasn’t been brought forth that’s satisfactory.”
The families of the men declined to speak with reporters assembled outside the courthouse.
The judge also denied a defense motion arguing for the dismissal of financial aid fraud against Musse and Ahmed, concluding that a “person of common intelligence would reasonably understand that one could not use financial aid funds to purchase a plane ticket in order to commit a felony offense.”