The second Twin Cities man in as many weeks to admit to his role in a plot to fight alongside Syrian terrorists said he was moved to do so by his Muslim faith, despite atrocities he knew were committed overseas.
Zacharia Abdurahman, 20, explained to U.S. District Judge Michael Davis that he felt it was his duty to join the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to help alleviate suffering among Syrian citizens, although he knew the group committed beheadings and had burned prisoners alive.
“In Syria, I’ve seen videos of elderly parents and kids calling out, not to their fellow countrymen, but saying, ‘Where are the Muslims?’ ” Abdurahman told Davis and a full courtroom that included his parents. “I took it upon myself as a responsibility that I had an obligation to go. It is a worse sin to not listen to their cries.”
In exchange for pleading guilty to a single count of conspiring to provide material support for ISIL — a charge that could bring up to 30 years in prison — Abdurahman faces a maximum of 15 years. A related conspiracy charge was dropped.
“You understand that material support means more than taking a vacation in Syria?” Davis asked.
“Yes, your honor,” Abdurahman said.
Abdurahman, a onetime computer science student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, spoke softly. He was repeatedly nudged by his attorney, Jon Hopeman, to say “your honor” while addressing Davis. Upon entering the courtroom, he glanced back at his family, who smiled and wiped their eyes.
He is the third defendant in the conspiracy to plead guilty. Abdullahi Yusuf pleaded guilty in February.
Unlike fellow defendant Hanad Musse, who pleaded guilty last week, Abdurahman did not hesitate to name his fellow co-conspirators — some who await trial in February, others who made it to Syria and are at large or believed dead.
Among them, Abdurahman also named the informant critical to the government’s case: Abdirahman Bashiir. The FBI paid Bashiir $41,000 through August to secretly record his friends.
Still, Abdurahman admitted that he wasn’t entrapped by the informant — an argument made by the seven defendants’ families since they were charged earlier this year.
“The idea was there before,” Abdurahman told Davis. “Joining ISIS and going to Syria was there before even the [informant] came along.”
The hourlong hearing shed some light on the organization’s tactics to recruit American youth. Despite being Somali, Abdurahman wasn’t interested in joining Al-Shabab, a terror organization that successfully recruited dozens of young Twin Cities Somali men from 2007 to 2012.
“With Al-Shabab it was mostly targeted to Somali people, and ISIS is targeted to Western youth,” Abdurahman said. “They were in English and show things that Western youth do.”
Abdurahman said that he learned of atrocities committed by ISIL after his friend Abdi Nur, also a part of the conspiracy, successfully made it to Syria. He said he was aware of beheadings and burning prisoners alive, but not rapes. He said he watched the television network Al-Jazeera, and through its coverage was convinced the victims were criminals who deserved it.
Davis responded that he knew the news service, and that it wouldn’t report that the victims deserved to be beheaded. “Don’t try to fool with me on that one,” he said.
Davis asked emphatically if Abdurahman ever saw footage of a beheading.
“I didn’t see exactly, but I knew about them,” Abdurahman responded.
Abdurahman also laid out for Davis his failed attempt to fly to Europe through JFK International Airport, then make his way to Syria. He backed out of a second attempt to fly to Syria through Mexico.
Asked by Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty whether it was because of a change of heart, Abdurahman responded, “No sir, I thought I was gonna get caught.”
His sentencing date has not been scheduled.
Afterward, Abdurahman’s father, Yusuf, stood by while other family members embraced outside the courtroom, which once again bore a heavy security presence.
“I thought he did a good job,” his father said of his son’s confessions.
Sadik Warfa, a Somali community leader and liaison for the families of the defendants, was subdued after months of mounting a vigorous defense.
Warfa said Abdurahman is appropriately taking responsibility.
“If someone does the crime,” he said, “they should be held accountable.”
Staff writer Paul McEnroe contributed to this report.