The largest ISIL-related federal prosecution to reach trial resulted Friday in emphatic guilty verdicts against three Minneapolis men on charges of conspiring to support a foreign terrorist organization and to commit murder abroad under its command.
The three defendants — Abdirahman Daud, 22; Mohamed Farah, 22, and Guled Omar, 21 — now face sentences of up to life in prison in a case that could have national repercussions for the battle against homegrown terrorism.
As the verdicts were read in a hushed Minneapolis courtroom, each defendant sat silently and their relatives began weeping. One woman left the courtroom sobbing and one juror could be seen tearing up.
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. Omar was also found guilty of attempting to use student aid to finance his travel.
After the verdicts were announced, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis asked each defendant in turn: “Do you understand what the verdict was?”
The verdicts capped nearly three days of deliberation by the 12-member jury and a three-week trial that featured dramatic, contentious testimony by three former friends of the defendants, including one who had become a paid FBI informant. Several times, the trial was interrupted by altercations in the packed courthouse between Somali-American families who found themselves on opposite sides of the issues.
The case was just the third federal ISIL-related prosecution in the nation to reach trial, and the first with multiple defendants. As a result, it was closely watched by prosecutors, civil libertarians and terrorism scholars across the country. Of particular interest was the large number of defendants charged and their connections to friends who succeeded in leaving the United States and joining the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
‘Not about entrapment’
As Davis entered the courtroom to receive the jury’s verdict, some spectators could be heard saying, “Bismillah, bismillah,” which means, “In the name of Allah,” a phrase invoked by some Muslims before the beginning of an important event.
When court adjourned after the verdicts, relatives and supporters of the defendants left the courthouse for an emotional, impromptu news conference on the plaza outside. Some were silent. Others cried. One woman sobbed as she collapsed into the arms of friends. Protesters held up signs reading “Stop FBI Entrapment” and “Stop Targeting Somalis!”
“The families are in grieving,” said Sadik Warfa, who has served as an informal family representative during the trial. “They will appeal. They believe their sons are innocent.”
Warfa said the Somali community respects the American judicial system, but that lack of diversity on the jury was troubling.
“We may not agree with the legal system, but we have to respect it,” Warfa added. “The mothers won’t rest until their sons get the justice they deserve.”
Daud’s attorney, Bruce Nestor, later said he will focus for now on preparing for sentencing. “That’s the next phase.”
Speaking to reporters upstairs in the courthouse, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger called the trial one of the most important in recent Minnesota history.
“They wanted to fight for a brutal terrorist organization, kill innocent people and destroy their own families in the process,” Luger said. The defendants, he added, “were not wayward kids who just got caught up in a fantasy.”
Luger was joined by Richard Thornton, FBI special agent in charge in Minneapolis. Both took their firmest public stands yet against observers who have assailed the use of a paid informant and claim the government is targeting the Somali-American community. Both said the case was “not about entrapment” and that the conspiracy was “fully in place” before Abdirahman Bashiir, a onetime friend of the defendants, became a paid informant.
“They made that decision on their own, long before a friend started taping their extraordinary planning sessions,” Luger said.
Added Thornton: “Some or all of these defendants would be dead and in an unmarked grave in Syria had [Bashiir] not done the right thing.”
Late Friday afternoon, at the restaurant she operates in south Minneapolis, Mohamed Farah’s mother, Ayan, said she could not bear to go to the courthouse to hear the verdicts.
“Why would I go? I knew they were going to break the hearts of my boys,” she said. “My feelings are tired. I feel tired.”
She denied the government’s accusation that her son intended to become a killer, but said she now places her faith in her religion. “Allah is in charge,” she said.
As she spoke with a reporter and friends who stopped by to console her, Ayan Farah’s cellphone rang: It was her son, calling from jail.
“I knew this [would be] the outcome,” Mohamed told his mother.
“Do not worry,” she replied. “You know your mom is strong.”
Then, after his mother handed her phone to a nearby reporter, Mohamed said simply: “I am feeling OK.”
With the phone returned to his mother, Farah told his parents: “I am happy. One day I will get a fair justice.”
Intensive FBI probe
The three young men were the only defendants to go to trial from a group of 10 who were charged as part of an ongoing FBI investigation into terrorist recruitment in the Twin Cities Somali community. The probe dates back more than six years, when nearly two dozen young Minnesotans left to join the Somali terrorist organization Al-Shabab.
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 Bashiir, the paid FBI informant.
Prosecutors cast the conspiracy as a series of “exceptionally persistent efforts” beginning in spring 2014 to join an “exceptionally brutal” terrorist group. Omar was accused of twice trying to travel to California, then 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 the spring of 2014.
Farah, meanwhile, was among four defendants who were stopped by federal agents at JFK International Airport in New York in November 2014 as they tried to board overseas flights. Daud and Farah were later arrested in April 2015 after driving with Bashiir to a California warehouse near the Mexican border to buy fake Canadian passports from an undercover FBI agent.
Throughout the trial, defense attorneys argued that the statements captured on tape were youthful boasts, not sincere desires to join ISIL. Bashiir’s role in setting up the fake passport plan also prompted protests 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.
Omar, whose older brother allegedly left Minnesota several years ago to join the terror group Al-Shabab, had sobbed on the witness stand and said he vowed not to put his family through a similar ordeal. But Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty argued Tuesday that Omar stayed behind in spring 2015 only out of caution, not wanting to travel with others also under FBI surveillance.
Docherty also maintained that the men knew they would be asked to kill for ISIL, playing recordings of each defendant discussing the possibility of being sent back into the United States by ISIL or sharing a route into the country with ISIL fighters.
“In those tapes the three defendants convict themselves with the words that come out of their own mouths,” Docherty told jurors.
In his closing remarks, Murad Mohammad, Farah’s attorney, repeatedly referred to the defendants as “kids,” while suggesting that 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 argument, and later showed jurors photos of Nur and Hanad Mohallim, another friend who made it to Syria, clutching AK-47s.
“They’re not children,” she said. “These are grown men capable of making this decision. … They decided to join ISIL.”
The FBI investigation, dubbed “Operation Rhino,” is continuing, and a Department of Justice pilot program aimed at countering radicalization is still in its infancy. On Friday, officials continued to call for “a community-based solution” to a threat they say won’t soon go away.
“This is no time for people to stick their heads in the sand,” Luger said. “This trial should be a wake-up call: All Minnesotans must resist the impulse to deny reality.”
Staff writers Shannon Prather, David Chanen and Faiza Mahamud contributed to this report.