Informant's role emerges as key in counterterror sweep

Family members entered the courthouse.
The mother, right, of two of the men charged entered the federal courthouse in St. Paul on Monday.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

In the aftermath of the biggest counterterrorism sweep in the Twin Cities since the FBI began investigating local ties to ISIS, a suspect's brother lashed out Monday at the informant who helped authorities make their case.

"He lied to my brother," said Abdirashid Daud, the younger brother of defendant Abdirahman Daud. "He basically set him up for failure. I'm very, very mad. Especially one of our brothers — a Somali guy — that's working for the feds, for what? For what reason?

"I don't understand, bro. That's wrong of him doing that, man. They could be looking at a lot of years because of what he did."

The younger Daud had come to the courthouse in St. Paul to support his brother at the first court appearance for four of the six men arrested Sunday.

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The role of the informant had been described earlier Monday in a criminal complaint spelling out the government's case against the elder Daud and five others: Mohamed Abdihamid Farah; Farah's brother, Adnan Abdihamid Farah; Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman; Hanad Mustafe Musse, and Guled Ali Omar.

Federal authorities charged the six young Minnesota men with trying to join the terrorist group ISIS in Syria. Prosecutors said the six men, all between ages 19 and 21, were dogged and unwavering in their mission.

"They were not confused young men, they were not easily influenced," said U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger. "These are focused men who are intent on joining a terrorist organization by any means possible."

Luger told reporters the men were determined to travel by bus or car, from coast to coast, to get onto airplanes that would eventually take them to the battlefields of ISIS. Even after failed attempts, Luger said, they never stopped plotting another way to get to Syria.

The six were arrested Sunday in Minneapolis and San Diego. The FBI said the two men arrested in California had taken a road trip on Friday to get fake passports. The two were planning to cross into Mexico and fly out to the Middle East before federal agents rounded them up.

The six men were friends with three other young Twin Cities men who had already been charged with joining or trying to join ISIS. And all six were from Minnesota's Somali community, where one question remained top of mind.

Family members
Family members headed to the entrance of the federal courthouse in St. Paul.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

"People often ask, who is doing the terror recruiting in Minnesota, and when we will catch the person responsible?" Luger said. "But it is not that simple. In today's case, the answer is that this group of friends is recruiting each other. They are engaged in what we describe as peer-to peer-recruiting — friend to friend, brother to brother."

But Luger said they got some help from abroad. Twenty-one-year-old Abdi Nur of Minneapolis was one who got away. He made it to Syria, and authorities said he's now acting as a recruiter for ISIS, offering ideas and inspiration to his buddies in Minnesota.

Luger said the case of Abdi Nur shows how vulnerable young people are to the contagion of radical ideas.

Abdi Nur posted this photo to Facebook
Abdi Nur posted this photo to his Facebook profile in August 2014, months after leaving Minnesota to fight with ISIS.
Facebook screenshot

"What this case shows is the person radicalizing your son, your brother, your friend may not be a stranger," he said. "It may be their best friend, right here in town."

But it was another friend who helped the FBI crack the case. An unnamed young man who was scheming for months to travel to Syria and had previously denied any involvement to the FBI eventually had a "change of conscience," according to the FBI.

It was that young man who inspired Abdirashid Daud's denunciation outside the courthouse Monday.

Farhiyo Mohamed, the mother of the Daud brothers, said she also was disheartened about the authorities' use of a Somali informant. "We're ruining our lives," she said. "We're putting our children in jail."

She and her younger son were among more than 70 Somalis who attended the first court appearance of the four men arrested in Minnesota. They packed a hallway in the court building, forcing officials to move the hearing to a bigger room.

Hanad Mustafe Musse
Hanad Mustafe Musse
Courtesy Sherburne County Jail

The four defendants arrested in Minnesota — Adnan Farah, 19; Zacharia Abdurahman, 19; Hanad Musse, 19, and Guled Omar, 20 — entered the room one by one.

After each one said he understood the charges against him, the judge ordered the four men held until Thursday, when they appear in court.

The mood at the courtroom was tense, with families saying the government was using their sons' friends to spy on their children.

Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman
Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman
Courtesy Sherburne County Jail

Abdihamid Yusuf, the father of Adnan and Mohamed Farah, said his U.S.-born sons had been brainwashed. "The man who entrapped my sons is a Somali," he said in Somali. "He used to come to my house and eat."

He said he never suspected that the young man who became an FBI informant would turn against his sons. He said he took offense "that someone should come to your house, eat and record your conversations."

Authorities said recorded conversations between the informant and the defendants gave them an inside look into the depth of the men's commitment to join ISIS.

Adnan Abdihamid Farah
Adnan Abdihamid Farah
Courtesy Sherburne County Jail

According to the complaint, in one conversation, defendant Mohamed Farah made clear his desire to abandon his American identity. "Even if I get caught," he said, "I'm through with America. Burn my ID."

Authorities emphasized that no evidence suggests the men planned attacks within the United States.

One defendant, Guled Omar, is the younger brother of a fugitive who was one of the earliest Twin Cities recruits for the terror group al-Shabab in Somalia. The complaint said that before Guled Omar tried to leave for Syria, he drained his student financial aid account, withdrawing $5,000 to help pay for his travels.

FBI special agent in charge Richard Thornton
FBI special agent in charge Richard Thornton, right, and U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

Rick Thornton, FBI special agent in charge, said the case shows just how difficult it will be to dismantle the recruiting network in Minnesota. At the same time, he thanked Somali-American community members who he said helped stop the six men from leaving.

"These courageous men and women decided to do something to prevent more Minnesotans from traveling and dying in support of a terrorist organization which is evil to its core," Thornton said. But Luger, the U.S. attorney, said the responsibility for preventing more such cases must be shared more widely.

"We have a terror recruiting problem in Minnesota," he said. "The problem will not go away unless we address it head-on. It's not a Somali problem. It's not an immigrant problem. It is our problem — a Minnesota problem."