Updated 1:55 p.m. | Posted 11:43 a.m.
A man who said he thought he wanted to free and protect the Syrian people from the brutal crackdown of President Bashar Assad pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiring to support the terrorist group ISIS.
Hanad Musse, 19, said Assad's troops were "evil people" and he "wanted to fight his forces to free Syrian people from oppression."
At times, the soft-spoken Musse displayed an unwillingness to implicate his friends. When he was asked if he was plotting with others to go to Syria, he repeatedly said, "I only speak for myself," but eventually admitted to a conspiracy.
He said he fell for ISIS' propaganda and the terror group's claim of building an Islamic state.
"At the time, I thought it was a bunch of freedom fighters," he told Senior U.S. District Judge Michael Davis.
Davis asked Musse several questions regarding his level of understanding of the conflict in Syria.
Musse said knew the United States government deemed ISIS a terrorist group. He also acknowledged that he was aware of ISIS videos showing members took part in beheadings and kidnappings; he later learned that the group was raping Yazidi women.
"Seems you are very knowledgeable about what was going on," the judge told Musse.
"I committed a terrorist act, and I'm guilty of it, your honor," Musse said.
Musse detailed his involvement in the alleged conspiracy, which he joined in spring 2014. That May, his cousin, Abdi Nur of Minneapolis, had traveled to Syria and began fighting for ISIS, prosecutors allege.
Within a month, Nur started communicating with the friends he left behind and offering them guidance on how to get to Syria.
Prosecutors say in November 2014, Musse and three other young men traveled by Greyhound bus from Minneapolis to New York in hopes of boarding planes that would help them get to the Middle East.
Musse admitted in court Wednesday that he bought his bus ticket with financial aid funds for college. He was attending Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
Musse said he and Zacharia Abdurahman had bought plane tickets to Athens, and Mohamed Farah and Hamza Ahmed planned to fly on a separate plane to Istanbul.
Musse also admitted he lied to FBI agents who questioned him in New York, telling them he was going to vacation in Greece. And he lied on behalf of his friends, failing to inform agents that the men were also intending to travel to Syria to join ISIS.
But even after agents prevented the four friends from flying out that day, Musse said he met with the group at least 10 more times until spring 2015. They discussed how to dodge law enforcement with false answers and started planning their next trip to the Middle East.
Musse said that on April 6, 2015, he provided a photo to be used to make a fake passport that he thought he help him get to Mexico, and ultimately, Syria. He said he gave the photo to another defendant in the case, Adnan Farah, who was supposed to pass it along to another young man who could have the passport made.
But that man was actually a paid informant working confidentially for the FBI.
Before Musse could leave, his father confronted him and told him not to go, Musse said in court. His father's intervention prevented Musse from leaving the country that time, but he continued to meet with his co-conspirators and plan their travels.
He told the judge he was someone who typically listened to his parents.
"He's my father, and every word he says I have to honor," said Musse, whose mother lives in Kenya. "It's just that I made this decision out of confusion."
Two additional defendants, Abdirahman Daud and Mohamed Farah, allegedly left for California in April to purchase the fake passports. Within days, Daud, Farah and four others were arrested.
As part of Musse's plea deal, two additional charges he faced — attempting to join ISIS and committing financial-aid fraud — were dropped. He still could receive up to 15 years in prison.
Sadik Warfa, a community organizer who has been working with the families of the defendants, said the father was devastated after watching his son plead guilty to the terror charge. Warfa said he has faith in the legal justice system, but that the informant is the true "culprit" in the case.
Warfa said after the hearing that he was disappointed Musse took the plea deal.
"The case would have been much better if it went to trial because we would have known more. But now, I don't know what's going to happen," said Warfa, adding that the Somali community still has questions about how the recruitment occurred.
On Wednesday afternoon, U.S. Attorney Andy Luger and several Somali-American community members will announce a number of programs intended to building resilience among the youth. The event will be followed by an opposing press conference hosted by Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Last week, a federal judge rejected several arguments made by defense attorneys in the case. A trial had been set for February.
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