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In court filings, ISIS recruit details path from Minnesota to Syria

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Updated 5 p.m. | Posted 12 p.m.

For the first time, a man who pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to the ISIS terror group is beginning to tell prosecutors about the people who helped facilitate his attempted travel to Syria.

Mohamed Abdihamid Farah
Mohamed Abdihamid Farah, 21, of Minneapolis is accused of trying to join the terrorist group ISIS in Syria. A judge ordered him Thursday to remain in custody pending his trial.
Courtesy Washington County Jail

Abdullahi Yusuf was the first defendant to plead guilty in the federal government's investigation into Minnesotans who have tried to join ISIS. He agreed to cooperate with the government in hopes of a reduced sentence.

Yusuf's cooperation in part led a federal judge on Thursday to keep 21-year-old Mohamed Farah behind bars.

Yusuf, who wasn't identified by name in the court motion, allegedly told authorities that Farah and Abdirahman Daud gave him contact information of ISIS members who would help him when he arrived in Syria. 

Yusuf also told prosecutors that in the spring of 2014 Farah and another suspect, Zacharia Abdurahman, introduced him to videos that encouraged fighting on behalf of Islam.

In May 2014, Yusuf, then 18, tried to board a plane from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to Istanbul, but federal FBI prevented him from flying out. Earlier this year, he pleaded guilty to conspiring to help terrorists.

Farah was one of six Twin Cities men, including his younger brother Adnan, arrested in April on charges of trying to join ISIS, and the last to have his detention hearing. 

The five others also remain in custody while their cases advance. 

Evidence offered by the government so far suggests Farah was more involved than some of his co-defendants, having allegedly tried to travel twice to Syria while prodding his friends to do the same. 

"He's not only trying to get himself over there; he's trying to get other young men [to Syria] to be put in harm's way," said Andrew Winter, an assistant U.S. attorney, in court Thursday.

Farah allegedly left Minneapolis for San Diego on April 17 in hopes of getting a fake passport from a source in California. Prosecutors allege Farah was planning to cross into Mexico and fly to the Middle East before federal agents arrested him three days later along with Daud.

Three days before Farah was arrested in San Diego on April 19, he told co-defendant Daud and an FBI informant that his mother knew his travel plans to Syria, according to excerpted transcripts released Wednesday by prosecutors.

However, in an affidavit filed Thursday morning, Farah's mother, Ayan Farah, denied she knew of her son's plans to go to Syria and believed he was attending college. 

After Thursday's hearing, she declined to comment for this story.

Prosecutors also allege that another family member may have known about Mohamed Farah's travel plans. 

Authorities said another co-defendant, Guled Omar, said in a secretly recorded conversation that Farah's grandmother told her grandson she would give him $5,000 "if you find a way out."

In another taped conversation on April 3, Farah allegedly told the FBI informant he'd kill FBI agents if his travel plans to Syria failed. 

Prosecutors pointed to these conversations to argue Farah would be a flight risk and potential danger to the community if released from jail.

But Farah's attorney, Patrick Nwaneri, said Farah was not planning to join a terrorist group. 

He said his client was frustrated, scared, and wanted to leave the country because he knew the federal investigators were constantly following him, "turn by turn, to their schools, to their houses."

Nwaneri also alleged that the confidential informant was the "ringleader" of the group.

At times, though, Nwaneri's exchanges with Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis drew laughs in the courtroom. Nwaneri at one point suggested the young men wanted to go back to their families' homeland in Africa.

"Last time I looked at a map, I don't remember Syria being part of the great continent of Africa," Davis said with a smile. "Help me out here."

But at other times, the hearing grew tense.

Davis, lauded by defendants' family members for his sense of fairness toward terror suspects and their parents, also demonstrated his displeasure when he observed a young man talking during the hearing.  

"If you're acting a fool back there, I'm distracted by you," Davis told him.

The judge also recalled that the young man had confronted him before. "I have a history with you," he said to the man. "We were at a community event. You touched me."

Unlike the detention hearings for the other defendants in the case, Davis did not signal a willingness to work with the Somali-American community on a supervised release plan for Farah, nor did the judge summon Farah's parents to the podium to make sure they understood his ruling, as he had done with the other defendants' parents.

The trip in April to California wasn't the first time Farah allegedly tried to leave the country. 

In November 2014, Farah, along with Zacharia Abdurahman, Hanad Musse and Hamza Ahmed, took a Greyhound bus to New York, hoping to catch planes that would help them get to Syria. That plan was foiled when agents intercepted them at the airport.

In April following the arrest of Farah and five other Twin Cities men, U.S. Attorney Andy Luger said that "peer-to-peer" radicalization was at play in the alleged conspiracy, and that there was not a single "master recruiter."

After the hearing, Hassan Mohamud of the Minnesota Da'wah Institute in St. Paul — who is both the family's imam and the law clerk for Farah's attorney — criticized Yusuf's role in the investigation. 

"This type of finger-pointing creates division in the community," he said. "I'm not sure if he's doing the right thing."