A Minneapolis jury has found three young Twin Cities men guilty of conspiring to support a foreign terrrorist organization and of conspiracy to commit murder abroad in one of the largest ISIL-related prosecutions to reach a federal trial.
The three defendants — Abdirahman Daud, 22; Mohamed Farah, 22; and Guled Omar, 21 — now face sentences of up to life in federal prison.
As the verdict was read to a hushed federal courtroom at 1:30, relatives of the three young men could be heard weeping in the gallery, while other spectators left the courtroom in tears. Omar placed one hand over his face and his attorney, Glenn Bruder, quietly shook his head.
On a list of separate charges, the jury found Farah guilty of making false statements to federal authorities; but found Daud not guilty of perjury.
The verdict capped three days of deliberations and a three-week trial that featured dramatic and contentious testimony by a colleague of the three who became a paid government informant and two other friends who pleaded guilty and assisted federal prosecutors. The proceedings were interrupted several times by altercations that broke out in the packed courtroom, apparently between Somali-American families who found themselves on opposite sides of the case.
The case was the nation’s biggest federal ISIL-related prosecution so far, and just the third to reach trial, with the result that it was closely watched around the country by prosecutors, civil liberties advocates and terrorism scholars. Of particular interest was the large number of defendants charged and their connections to Minnesota friends who had succeeded in leaving the United States and joining the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
. The three young men were the only defendants to go to trial from a group of 10 charged as part of an ongoing FBI investigation into terror recruitment in the Twin Cities Somali-American community, a probe that dates back to nearly two dozen Al-Shabab defections in the late 2000s. Six of the 10 pleaded guilty at various points in the last year, including two who testified against their former friends at trial. Another, Abdi Nur, 22, was charged in absentia after reportedly making it to Syria in May 2014 to join ISIL and maintaining contact with co-conspirators back home through early 2015.
At the heart of the government’s case was testimony and snippets of conversations secretly recorded by Abdirahman Bashiir, a co-conspirator turned paid FBI informant.
Prosecutors cast the conspiracy as a series of “exceptionally persistent efforts” over three phases beginning in spring 2014 to join an “exceptionally brutal” terrorist group. Omar was accused of twice trying to travel to California, where he allegedly planned to cross into Mexico and use a fake passport to fly to Syria. Prosecutors said he was also temporarily emir, or leader, of the group as it tried to leave in spring 2014.
Others, like Nur, succeeded in leaving that spring.
Farah, meanwhile, was among four defendants who were stopped by federal agents at JFK airport in New York in November 2014 as they tried to board flights overseas after first taking Greyhound buses to the East Coast. Daud and Farah were later arrested in April 2015 after driving with Bashiir to a warehouse near the Mexican border to purchase fake Canadian passports from an undercover FBI agent.
Throughout the trial, jurors were asked to consider the context of the recordings. Bashiir’s role in setting up the fake passport plan also prompted protest outside the federal building over claims of entrapment and FBI surveillance of the Somali-American community.
But jurors were instructed to reject any entrapment defense if they thought the government proved that the men were willing to commit the crime, something prosecutors say they “long itched to do” before Bashiir turned informant.
The government’s other two key witnesses, co-defendants Abdullahi Yusuf and Abdirizak Warsame, also testified about how meetings to discuss the Syrian conflict in spring 2014 evolved into steps to join ISIL. Each man’s testimony had to be delayed by altercations between their families and supporters of the defendants, including a reported confrontation between two families that prompted a visit to the gallery by Davis.
A second overflow courtroom was used for each day of trial to fit spectators, and the Minneapolis federal building also saw an increased law enforcement presence with bomb-sniffing dogs and agents visible throughout the trial.
Omar, whose voice was most often heard on the recordings played at trial, testified last week that while he did make the statements jurors heard, they amounted to boasts to look tough around friends.
Omar sobbed on the witness stand earlier in trial while describing the effect his brother’s reported travel to Somalia to join Al-Shabab had on his family and said he vowed not to put them through that again. He said that when Bashiir approached him with a plan in spring 2015 to travel into Mexico, he decided against it because he had balanced his desire to go to Syria with supporting his family back home.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty argued Tuesday that Omar instead stayed behind in spring 2015 out of caution, not wanting to travel with others who were also under FBI surveillance.
Prosecutors maintained that the men knew they would be asked to kill while under ISIL’s command, and played recordings of each defendant discussing the possibility of being sent back into the U.S. by ISIL or sharing a route into the country with ISIL fighters.
Farah on separate occasions defended ISIL’s burning alive of a captured Jordanian pilot and laughed about another ISIL video that showed prisoners digging their own graves or being tossed into a river.
“In those tapes the three defendants convict themselves with the words that come out of their own mouths,” Docherty told jurors this week.
Murad Mohammad, Farah’s attorney, repeatedly referred to the defendants as “kids,” in his closing remarks while suggesting Farah’s desire to leave the country was motivated by humanitarian and religious aims, and an attempt to avoid arrest after months of FBI surveillance.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Allyn rejected that label, and later showed jurors photos of Nur and Hanad Mohallim, another friend of the group who made it to Syria, in which they clutched AK-47s.
“They’re not children. These are grown men capable of making this decision. … They decided to join ISIL.”
Omar testified that both attempts to go to California weren’t to eventually flee the country for ISIL, but were for vacation purposes. He was the only defendant who never left Minneapolis as part of the conspiracy, and his attorney, Glenn Bruder, argued that there was no evidence that Omar searched for or purchased tickets from anywhere to Europe during the time frame.
“From the standpoint of considering his actions alone it is clear Guled Omar never joined this conspiracy,” Bruder said.