Former al-Shabab recruit turned witness to face deportation

Abdifatah Isse
Abdifatah Yusuf Isse.
Photo Courtesy of the Washington County Sheriff's Office

Updated 10:30 a.m. Thursday | Posted 6 p.m. Wednesday

A former Twin Cities man who joined a terror group in Somalia and later became a star witness for the United States government will be released from prison on Thursday.

But Isse isn't a free man just yet.

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Abdifatah Yusuf Isse, 31, is the first person to finish serving time for a terror-related charge as part of the expansive federal investigation into al-Shabab recruitment in the Twin Cities.

Because Isse is not a U.S. citizen and has been convicted of a felony, federal immigration enforcement officials took him into custody Thursday and into removal proceedings, said Ben Petok, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office.

Petok said an immigration judge will hear Isse's case and examine "the totality of the circumstances."

Isse was born in Somalia but left when he was about 8 years old, when civil war forced many families to flee.

Isse served a total of three years in federal custody, most recently in the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minn.

The story of how Isse traveled from suburban Minneapolis to a war zone in the Horn of Africa provided some of the most compelling details of how the first wave of young Minnesota men were radicalized to violence — and in a few cases, broke away from the cause.

Isse's testimony in 2012 helped lead to the conviction of a Minneapolis mosque janitor, Mahamud Said Omar, in a terrorism trial. Prosecutors say Omar helped supply fighters and cash to al-Shabab.

Former assistant U.S. Attorney Anders Folk, who worked on the al-Shabab cases, said Isse's contributions were extraordinary.

"You would hope that the assistance he provided is an indication of where his intentions now lie, and that he's moved on from what drew him to al-Shabab in the first place," Folk said.

While Isse apparently won't be released into the community any time soon, others charged in Minnesota with terror-related counts who have U.S. citizenship will be freed in the years to come.

"This is going to be one of the next chapters in America's war on terror, which is to say: How does the country bring individuals convicted of terrorism offenses back into society?" Folk said.

In 2007, Isse was out of a job and living with his girlfriend in Robbinsdale. He fell into a crowd of about a dozen young men who were angered by the occupation of Ethiopian troops in their homeland. The men met secretly at the Minneapolis mosque where Omar worked, plotting to wage jihad and defend Somalia, according to court testimony and documents.

Months later, Isse was chopping trees and performing other manual labor at the site of a future al-Shabab training camp. He had also received limited weapons training.

But he and another Twin Cities recruit, Salah Osman Ahmed, soon became disenchanted with their decision to join al-Shabab, Isse testified. When Ahmed broke into a skin rash, the two men received clearance from a camp leader to seek medical treatment for Ahmed.

They escaped the camp and eventually made their way back to the United States. Isse and Ahmed were later arrested and pleaded guilty to providing material support for terrorism.

Isse was facing up to 15 years according to sentencing guidelines but received just three, in part because of his cooperation with the government. At his sentencing in 2013, Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis noted that Isse left al-Shabab before he had seen his first battle.

"When you walked away, when you devised a scheme to get away, that told me a lot about you," Davis told Isse at the time.

Davis also reminded Isse he had the support of his family, who the judge said sacrificed much for Isse to succeed in a new country after enduring harsh conditions in a refugee camp.

"You've got a lot to live up to now," Davis said. "And if I'm wrong about you, it's on my end."

Through his attorney, Isse declined a request for an interview. He will remain under supervised release for 20 years.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story may have left the impression that Isse would be rejoining society immediately after his release. He still faces deportation and is in the custody of federal immigration officials.