A man who stabbed two brothers at the Mall of America last November and later claimed he did it on behalf of ISIS was sentenced to 15 years in prison Friday.
As he was about to leave the courtroom, Mahad Abdiraham turned to news media cameras and held up the index finger on his right hand, a symbol adopted by ISIS supporters.
It was the 20-year-old’s only communication of a possible motive for the stabbings after he declined to speak when Judge Kerry Meyer offered him a chance to address the court. Abdiraham pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree assault. He said at the time that he “went to Mall of America to answer the call for jihad by the chief of the believers, Abu-Bakr Baghdadi ... and by the Mujahedeen of the Islamic State.”
Bennett Clifford, a research fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said Friday in a telephone interview that the index finger gesture is sometimes an expression of unity unrelated to ISIS.
But based on statements Abdiraham made at the plea hearing, with which Clifford was familiar, “I think it means he supports the modern terrorist group ISIS,” Clifford said.
Two Minneapolis brothers, Alex Sanchez, 19, and John Sanchez, 25, were badly injured when Abdiraham slashed them with a knife in an apparently random attack. The two men were not in the courtroom when the sentencing occurred, although family members attended the hearing. Statements from the two were read by a victims’ advocate for the Hennepin County attorney’s office.
“After being a victim of this horrific crime, I could not bring myself to be present,” Alex Sanchez said in his statement. “I can’t get myself to anywhere like I used to. The scars on my face and upper torso are so visible. It’s hard to have people stare at me and what they must think.”
He said he does not have full function of his left arm or left cheek. “I wake up every day and I look at my face and I live the whole ordeal over and over and over again. It will never end for me or any of my family members.”
His godmother, Cindy Leon, said he dropped out of Metro State University, where he had been studying for a business degree.
John Sanchez, who also was slashed, has yet to return to his construction job, Leon said. Sanchez said in his statement he lost motion in one of his thumbs and said he had a feeling of being useless, “and all because of someone so heartless that [he] could care less for his own life.”
John Sanchez said his oldest son, who is 5, saw the attack and does not want to go back to the mall because “he fears something else might happen again. ... I wake up every day worrying not only for my safety but for my loved ones; this world does not feel safe anymore.”
Meyer said she felt very sorry for the victims and that the sentence was the most she could hand out under state sentencing guidelines. Under those guidelines, she said, Abdiraham would be eligible for release after about 8½ years.
Assistant County Attorney Patrick Lofton, the prosecutor, said restitution would be discussed at a future hearing. Meyer said it would be deducted from wages Abdiraham would earn from work during his prison term and before he would be able to keep earnings for himself.
Leon did not think the term was long enough.
“I feel horribly angry,” Juan Sanchez, the father of the two men, said in Spanish with Leon translating for him.
A family routine disrupted
Juan Sanchez said the Sanchez family had often gone to the Mall of America on Sundays to shop, have a meal and go to the movies.
When the attack occurred Nov. 12, Alex Sanchez was exiting a dressing room at Macy’s to show the family a pair of pants and as he returned to the dressing room, Abdiraham started slashing him with an 8-inch blade. John Sanchez grabbed at the knife and was cut on his hands and back as other family members, including their father, subdued Abdiraham.
A charging document noted that Abdiraham had psychological problems.
Last year, he was charged with stabbing his doctor and another staff member with a pen at the Hennepin County Medical Center inpatient psychiatric unit. A judge found him not guilty by reason of mental illness.
Abdiraham’s attorney, public defender Lindsay Siolka, said after Friday’s hearing that although Abdiraham had been released from psychiatric hospitalization, at the time of the Macy’s attack “he was being supervised on a court-ordered civil commitment due to mental illness.”
She said the conditions of his civil commitment required him to be taking mental health medication around the time of the incident.
It is unclear whether he was taking the medication.
Leon said the family was bitter that no one from Macy’s or the Mall of America had called them.
“What hurts my family and I, is the Mall or Macy’s have not even tried to contact us to see if we are OK,” Alex Sanchez said in his victim impact statement.
A Mall of America spokeswoman deferred all responses to Macy’s because the incident occurred in that store.
Andrea Schwartz, a vice president of media relations for Macy’s, wrote in an e-mail, “We are deeply saddened about the incident that took place at Macy’s Mall of America in November as the safety and comfort of Macy’s customers and associates is Macy’s top priority. We have worked closely with the Bloomington Police Department on this investigation and defer all comments about the case to the Bloomington Police Department.”