Late Tuesday afternoon, closing an emotional day of sentencing in the nation’s biggest ISIL recruiting investigation, Senior U.S. Judge Michael Davis called the parents of defendant Adnan Farah to stand before him in court. Noting that another of their sons faces sentencing in the same case tomorrow, Davis said:
“I wanted you to see me closer and understand that I would never want to be in your place, having two sons that are going to go to prison,” said Davis, who has struggled openly for two days with the fates of the young men before him.
Adnan, he told them, will go to prison for 10 years.
The scene, unfolding in a packed courtroom in Minneapolis, ended the second of three days of sentencing in the terror conspiracy case, a day that saw harsher sentences — 10 years for two defendants, 15 years for a third — for young men who pleaded guilty but refused to cooperate with government prosecutors.
Farah, 20, the last to be sentenced on Tuesday, was arrested in April 2015 when federal agents rounded up six men involved in the scheme in a series of arrests in Minneapolis and San Diego. He had applied for an expedited passport to leave the United States, but his parents confiscated it when it arrived in the mail. Davis reminded Farah’s father that the action saved his son’s life.
“Your children lied to you,” Davis said. “They lied to you about what they believed and what they were about to do.”
Adnan Farah’s attorney, Kenneth Udoibok, made an extraordinary plea of his own during the hearing, noting that he himself was spared recruitment to become a child soldier in Nigeria, a fate that befell six of his friends.
“I understand how easy it is to mislead children,” Udoibok said.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Winter challenged Farah’s statement that he wished someone would have intervened to tell him and his co-conspirators that they were on the wrong path.
“He’s blaming people around him for simply not telling them that joining an organization that beheads people is wrong,” Winter said. “It’s quite stunning.”
Tears and confessions
Farah’s hearing concluded a long day marked by expressions of remorse.
Davis twice ordered defendants to take a seat so he could show their families the same grisly propaganda videos produced by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that they once watched and discussed. The judge at one point asked that a young child be removed from court before a prosecutor played a scene depicting a mass beheading of prisoners.
“Oh my God,” one woman said under her breath.
In a hearing earlier in the day, Davis sentenced Farah’s co-defendant Hanad Musse to 10 years in prison after a tearful hourlong hearing.
Musse, 21, who once described himself as “a servant of Allah,” eventually pleaded guilty and had asked for 72 months in prison. Federal prosecutors had recommended 15 years.
Addressing the judge in a soft voice and reading from a written statement, Musse said, “It’s been a hard long year for many people.” To his mother, who traveled from Kenya to support him, he added: “I love you and I made a mistake.” Relatives in the courtroom began quietly sobbing.
“I lied to everyone, I tried to deceive everybody,” Musse continued. “I undermined my parents’ existence, I overlooked the position that they had in my life. My way of thinking would lead me to destruction. I was never entrapped nor lured into this crime.”
Like other defendants, Musse listened as Davis pointed out the differences between their cases and other federal crimes, where a good educational record and job history typically predict a successful rehabilitation.
“What you’ve done is you turned us on our head,” Davis said. “You used what we used for predictors of success to deceive us in order to do harm.”
As the hearing came to a close, the judge asked Musse: “Sir, are you a terrorist or not?”
“Yes, I am a terrorist, your honor,” Musse replied.
Musse’s attorney, Andrew Birrell, told the judge that a maximum sentence after his client’s guilty plea would send the wrong message toward the goals of deterrence and rehabilitation.
“I do think, judge, I do think we can save this guy and I think that’s what we need to do,” Birrell said.
Winter countered that Musse had tossed aside an opportunity to cooperate with the government and lied to a court expert, Daniel Koehler, during an interview weeks before three co-conspirators were going to stand trial.
“His mission was to protect his co-conspirators who were still pending trial,” Winter said.
Musse acknowledged that he didn’t cooperate with prosecutors, saying he would have lost his community’s support.
‘Trying every day’
In Tuesday’s first hearing, defendant Hamza Ahmed was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his convictions on charges of supporting ISIL and committing financial-aid fraud to finance an attempted trip to Syria.
“I want you to understand I am not completely changed,” Ahmed, 21, told Davis. “I’m in the process, but nobody changes overnight. I’m trying every day. I want to reach that point.”
Davis told Ahmed he appreciated his frankness, then said: “There is an opening for you,” displaying a small space with his fingers.
Ahmed was one of four defendants stopped by federal agents in 2014 after taking a Greyhound bus to New York in an attempt to fly to the Middle East. He pleaded guilty last April, just weeks before he was set for trial in Minneapolis.
Ahmed said he was thankful that federal agents removed him from the plane, recognizing it would have sent him eventually to his death.
“I refuse for this to be my legacy, I will come back, make a positive [difference] for my community, for people around me and I will be remembered.”
Ahmed had asked for a reduced sentence and release to a community rehab program; prosecutors sought 15 years in prison.
His attorney, JaneAnne Murray, also made an impassioned plea for her client, saying he was not a leader, recruiter or organizer of the conspiracy. She described him as a “very dutiful son” in a large extended family, and said he became entranced by ISIL’s internet messaging as he sought identity online while stuck at home looking after his younger siblings so his mother could work evenings at a bakery.
“It’s a tragedy because he was a perfect mark for that powerful, voluminous propaganda by ISIL,” Murray said.
‘This is hard’
After the hearing, Ahmed’s father, Naji Ibrahim, left the courtroom deeply saddened.
“My son would have died if he went to Syria. I thank the government for stopping my child,” Ibrahim added. “But my son is young, he made a mistake. They should have given him a chance. But I also accept my mistake, that I didn’t give my son [more] time. I was busy working seven days a week. This is hard.”
This week’s sentencing hearings conclude a yearlong FBI investigation of terror recruitment in Minnesota that led to the convictions of nine young Somali-Minnesotans on charges of conspiracy to support ISIL. Six pleaded guilty and three were convicted during a trial in Minneapolis last spring, which also included charges of conspiracy to commit murder abroad. Two more defendants were charged in absentia after successfully leaving for Syria.
The final three defendants — Guled Omar, Mohamed Farah and Abdirahman Daud — who were convicted at trial and face longer potential prison terms, will be sentenced on Wednesday.