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ISIS in the Twin Cities

eye on the news

ISIS in the Twin Cities

What the national media missed about an important terrorism trial June 28, 2016
Public safety

On June 3, a Minnesota jury returned guilty verdicts against three Somali-Americans who disputed the ISIS-related terrorism charges brought against them by the office of United States Attorney for Minnesota Andrew Luger. Ten defendants were initially charged, but six had already pleaded guilty by the time the trial started. The Minnesota trial represents the largest such case ever brought in the United States, yet the news it generated has been obscured by the June 12 Orlando massacre. 

The case went to trial before Judge Michael Davis in federal district court in Minneapolis on May 9. Davis did an excellent job keeping the courtroom safe and the trial under control. Four or five visibly armed Department of Homeland Security officers patrolled the atrium of the federal courthouse. Officers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms put bomb-sniffing dogs to work in the corridors. While family and friends of the defendants packed the courtroom, Davis enforced strict behavior protocols to prevent distractions and misconduct. These precautions proved their worth several times over. Tensions ran high. Early on, the brother of one defendant was found trying to smuggle scissors with six-inch blades into the courtroom. He had previously been observed photographing the elevators. He was banned from the courthouse for the duration.

Waiting in the hallway to enter the courtroom one morning, I witnessed a young Somali girl in a hijab pounding on an older woman and cursing at maximum volume over and over, within 50 feet of the jury room. When the girl refused to desist, one of several plainclothes law-enforcement officers attending the trial took her to the floor and handcuffed her. And here I thought I’d seen it all. (The fight was between the mother of a cooperating defendant, who had pleaded guilty, and her daughter, a girlfriend of one of the defendants.)

Over three weeks, the jury heard a massive amount of evidence. Though I had followed the case closely, I wanted to take in the evidence with my own eyes and ears. I found it shocking. Defendants Mohamed Farah, Abdirahman Daud, and Guled Omar made up part of a larger group of young men from the Twin Cities who sought to leave the United States to join ISIS in Syria. When I say young, I mean high school and college age. One of their friends—Abdirahman Bashir—turned informant, while others made it to Syria without being detected or charged in the process. They are all first- or second-generation Somalis who appear to be talented and resourceful young men. They had social lives centered on local mosques. They are all observant Muslims and supplemented their education with Islamic studies. They wanted to live under the caliphate declared by ISIS. They yearned to wage jihad and to die as Islamic martyrs.

The group comes from Minnesota’s large Somali immigrant population, officially estimated at 40,000. The true number must be closer to 140,000. The United States attorney himself has used an unofficial estimate of 100,000 in an agreement he entered into with Somali community leaders. If Minnesota’s Somalians were a city, they would be Minnesota’s third-largest, after Minneapolis and St. Paul. Their numbers grow every year. In September 2015, the House Homeland Security Committee released a study of Americans seeking to join ISIS as foreign fighters. Minnesota, it turns out, sends more aspiring fighters to Syria and Iraq than any other state.

The heart of the government’s case was conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization (by joining ISIS) and conspiracy to commit murder overseas (by fighting for ISIS). In the spring and fall of 2014, the defendants tried unsuccessfully to leave Minnesota for Syria. Farah was one of three Minnesota Somalis intercepted at JFK Airport on his way to Syria that November. He protested to the FBI agents who stopped him that he was simply on his way to vacation by himself in sunny Sofia, Bulgaria.

In April 2015, the defendants thought they had a chance to travel to Syria through Mexico. By this time, however, Bashir had appeared before the grand jury, turned informant, and begun recording his friends for the FBI. In April 2015, he convinced them to travel to San Diego by car to obtain fake passports. The FBI was planning a sting. Sensing that he was “hot,” Omar declined to join the road trip.

Bashir’s covert recordings took center stage over several days at trial. In hours of recordings, the defendants expressed their desire to join ISIS, their regret over the failure of their previous efforts to make it out of the United States, their commitment to wage jihad against nonbelievers, and their ardent wish to die as martyrs. They expressed their contempt for the United States. They thrilled to the videos of ISIS butchery in the name of Allah. They talked excitedly about their communications with friends who had made it to join ISIS in Syria.

As Bashir, Daud, and Farah approached their rendezvous with the FBI in San Diego, Daud expressed what seemed to be a common feeling among them: “I can’t believe I’m driving out of the land of the kuffar, I’m going to spit on America at the border crossing. May Allah’s curse be upon you.” The government was hoping to keep the surveillance going until they learned who had recruited them, but they may have recruited themselves. The defendants needed no more prodding than that contained in ISIS’s online promotional videos.

Perhaps most shocking to me was what utterly ordinary members of the Minnesota Somali community the defendants and their friends appeared to be. So far as I can tell, Somali culture is alien and hostile to the United States. Many among the local Somali community considered the defendants to be persecuted innocents entrapped by the government. It would be unduly charitable to characterize the attitude as willful blindness.

The defendants would have been happy to wage jihad inside the United States on behalf of ISIS. They talked of helping ISIS fighters from Syria travel to the U.S. by following their planned path in reverse, going from Turkey to Mexico to San Diego. Fortunately for us, however, prior to their departure they did not perceive the U.S. to be a battlefield for ISIS. When ISIS hacked into a database and stole identifying information for veteran drone operators or pilots, Omar balked at the idea of tracking them down and killing them. Not that there was anything wrong with it; he simply found the order too “hot.”

The trial produced many questions that were left open. Among them: what database was hacked? Whose names were on the list? Unfortunately, the national media aren’t about to pick up the loose ends. Washington Post reporter Abigail Hauslohner attended just the first three days of the trial. Back at home, she wrote an article that was almost laughable in light of the evidence she missed through her untimely departure. Hauslohner lasted two days longer than Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce, who dropped in for a day during a lull on the Prince postmortem beat.

In a sense, Pearce and Hauslohner both did better than New York Times reporter Jack Healy. He got to town just in time for the verdicts. His article, written with freelancer Matt Furber, drew on the kinds of skills that Ronald Reagan brought to calling baseball games on the radio from a newswire. They turned for comment to Burhan Mohumed, a “community organizer” and friend of the defendants who condemned the verdicts as “purely political.” Judge Davis had banned Mohumed from the courthouse for repeated violation of his protocols, yet Healy considered him a go-to guy on the sufficiency of the evidence to support the verdicts. “I left a little hope that they wouldn’t be convicted on a conspiracy to murder charge,” Mohumed said. “I didn’t think they had enough evidence to convict them on that. I think that was an overreach.”

Healy and Furber quoted Mohumed again in their follow-up article on community reaction—Somali community reaction, that is—to the verdict. For some reason, Healy and Furber didn’t think to ask any of us who have welcomed and supported the Somali community in the Twin Cities over the past 25 years for our take.

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