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Thanks to tweets, suspected ISIS backer stays in jail

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Hamza Ahmed's Instagram account
Federal authorities have charged Hamza Ahmed, 19, of Minneapolis, with lying to federal agents during a terrorism investigation. Ahmed was among four young Twin Cities men officials stopped from traveling to Turkey last November. Screenshot from his Instagram account.
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Updated: 6:28 p.m. | Posted: 12:54 p.m.

A 19-year-old Minneapolis man accused of lying to federal agents during a terrorism investigation will remain behind bars for now.

At a detention hearing Monday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Rau said he was concerned about tweets that Hamza Ahmed posted on Twitter before he tried to leave for the Middle East in November. Federal authorities suspect he was trying to travel to Syria, possibly to join the terror group ISIS.

Prosecutors argued that Ahmed's tweets suggested he was willing to be a martyr and was therefore a danger to the community. 

Ahmed's attorney, JaneAnne Murray, said his social media updates were driven by hubris and didn't reflect her client's true intent. But Rau wasn't convinced.

"The tweets you issued were beyond hubris. They were beyond youth," the judge told Ahmed. "They were threats."

On his Twitter account, Ahmed tweeted his sense of feeling conflicted about living in Minnesota while the violence continued in Syria. "Ya Allah give me the chance to Help and fight for the Muslims in Syria," he wrote in November 2013. About a month later, he mused, "Staying here just seems to kill part of me everyday."

He also mentions his lifelong desire to be a martyr. But in that tweet, from November 2013, he vows to appreciate his time on the earth and "not be so eager." 

Ahmed was prolific on Twitter, amassing nearly 18,000 tweets since 2012. His musings ranged from Derrick Rose and Michael Jordan to religious affirmations. He posted frequently about jihad but also boasted about his love for a baby sister. 

He stopped activity on Nov. 4, just days before he took a bus with three other men from Minneapolis to John F. Kennedy International Airport. Federal authorities say they pulled Ahmed off of his plane before it took off and prevented the other three men from boarding their flights to Istanbul, Turkey.

Somali-American community advocate Mohamud Noor said Ahmed's parents are struggling with the situation.

"They feel the young man has lost his hope," Noor said. "We're trying to make sure we address this from the community perspective. This is the time we have to look at the future of the young men who are vulnerable."

Noor says his group, the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, wants to work with families and rehabilitate young men who are at risk of being radicalized.

Tweets led to trouble

The case against Hamza Ahmed

What is Ahmed being accused of?

The government is saying that Hamza Ahmed was one of four Twin Cities men, all 19 or 20 years old, who took a bus in November from Minneapolis to JFK Airport in New York. 

From there, they tried to catch planes to Turkey. But investigators suspect the men had ambitions of joining ISIS in Syria. 

Ahmed has been the only one arrested so far. He is being charged with lying to the FBI in multiple interviews after authorities removed him from the plane.

How has his Twitter account gotten him into trouble?

Ahmed has posted nearly 18,000 tweets since he joined Twitter a few years ago. 

Most of the posts are religious affirmations that don't look especially foreboding. But he does mention at least once that he always wanted to be a martyr. And in several instances, beginning in 2013, he posts about wanting to fight in Syria, about the conflicted feelings he had about enjoying a comfortable life in Minnesota while Muslims were dying there.

And he talks about, in very teenage terms, how his parents just don't understand his views on Syria. He said his dad even went as far as to tell him he had been brainwashed. 

But the Twitter feed in other ways resembles stuff that a lot of teenagers post about. Ahmed was known to play basketball and mused about Michael Jordan and Derrick Rose. He posted pictures about his baby sister and how much he adored her. 

How common are cases like this, in which a defendant's social media activity gets him or her into trouble?

In these terror cases, the FBI has used Twitter to track what suspects are communicating to the rest of the world. 

If agents can use those tweets as evidence of a crime, they'll typically use them. In this case, for example, Ahmed told the FBI he didn't know another Minnesota man who traveled to Syria last year — but there were messages, all in the public domain, between the two men. 

That's one way the federal government was able to charge Ahmed with lying to the FBI.

But one point is important to remember: Posting extremist thoughts on Twitter, generally speaking, is not a crime. 

In this case, though, the judge felt that Ahmed's travel plans, coupled with his posts, raised enough of a concern to keep him detained while his case is presented to a grand jury.

What do we know about the problem of young people in the Twin Cities who are trying to join the conflict in Syria?

The FBI has said in the past that there are about a dozen people who traveled to the conflict in Syria, including some who are now dead. 

This case shows that recruitment for terrorist groups appears to continue, even after the brutality of ISIS has been well-reported across the globe. The other three men who tried to travel to the Middle East with Ahmed have not been charged yet, but that may change.

The problem has become a significant concern to Somali community leaders. They've said they are working on a plan to rehabilitate young men who might be on the fringe of being radicalized.