Hanad Musse stood before a federal judge Wednesday, ready to plead guilty for his involvement in conspiring to support terrorists in Syria.
But U.S. District Judge Michael Davis wanted more.
“I don’t want a recitation,” said Davis in a stern, almost impatient tone. “I want him to explain to me what he did.”
And with that, as a packed courtroom listened intently, the 19-year-old Musse explained why for nearly a year he conspired with his friends to find a way to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Reports of beheadings, rapes and kidnapping perpetrated by ISIL troops were not enough to dissuade him from attempting to travel to Syria, he said.
Musse described how he initially saw himself as a freedom fighter, a young man who was going to fight the Syrian oppressors and a Kurdish terrorist organization that perpetrated “evil” upon women and children in Syria and Iraq.
Musse was at first hesitant to implicate his friends as co-defendants in the conspiracy, repeatedly saying “I speak only for myself, sir.” But eventually he acknowledged — one by one — that they were involved with him trying to buy fake passports that would get them out of the United States and eventually into Syria.
He told Davis that he and his friends met as many as 10 times to plan how they would avoid detection by U.S. authorities. He was lured by online ISIL propaganda and through friends, including his cousin Abdi Nur, who successfully left the country in May 2014 to join ISIL.
Finally, after an hourlong hearing, the Somali-American who was born in St. Louis Park summed it up without any prompting from judge, prosecutor or defense attorney. In a packed courtroom filled with more than a dozen of his friends and his father, Musse looked the judge in the eye and said, “I committed a terrorist act, and I’m guilty of it.”
With that, Musse joined Abdullahi Yusuf as the second Minnesotan to plead guilty in an internationally watched terrorism conspiracy case in the Twin Cities.
Law enforcement officials and terrorism experts have long attributed the rise in extremist recruiting to sophisticated propaganda campaigns run by groups like ISIL, but Musse’s testimony offered a rare glimpse into how young Muslims could be inspired to join such a group, which is known for its cutthroat brutality.
“They presented themselves as holy fighters who are there to free people of oppression,” said Musse, before pleading guilty to conspiring to support ISIL. He admitted to Davis to seeking out and watching numerous videos of beheadings and suicide bombings posted online by the group’s sympathizers.
But, Musse says, he was more drawn to the group’s equally powerful narrative of fighting to end the persecution of Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria.
For every image of an execution posted on an ISIL-related account, there is one of the devastation wrought by airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.
He and his friends, Musse said, were bound by a belief that they were going overseas to fight the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the terror group PKK, or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
“In addition to all the brutality and the gore, ISIL also pushes a different message, a different positive message and their general narrative is: Come to Syria and help us develop our caliphate and you will live the way Mohammed and his earlier disciples lived,” said Aki Peritz, a former CIA analyst and author of a book on counterterrorism.
“It shows the evolution of the pull of these jihadi groups. You can now get people who have no personal ethnic or family ties to a region to try to make their way to Syria or to die,” Peritz said.
Musse pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization, while charges of aiding and abetting and financial aid fraud were dismissed.
Musse, dressed in an orange jumpsuit with his hands clasped behind his back, answered questions from Davis and Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Winter, who went through portions of the plea agreement, line by line.
“Was that your intent, to give yourself to the organization for any purposes that they needed you for?” Winter asked.
“Yes sir,” said Musse, who attempted to leave the country in November 2014 and again in 2015 before he was stopped by his father.
He faces up to 15 years in prison, but his attorneys could argue for supervised release of less time. A sentencing date has not been set.
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, who watched the morning’s proceedings from the second row of the packed courtroom, said the recruitment Musse described underscores the importance of new programs to counter extremism.
Musse will be willing to go into schools and any public venue to speak about his experiences and “to help other people avoid the circumstances he finds himself in,” Musse’s attorney Andrew Birrell argued in court. “He’s a thoughtful guy. People who say they did something wrong, you can work with them.”
Some supporters cried softly throughout the proceeding, and several stood up and held up their fists in solidarity as he was escorted out of the courtroom.