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Feds: Defender of Minnesota ISIS suspect 'preaching jihad'

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St. Paul Imam Hassan Mohamud
St. Paul Imam Hassan Mohamud arrives outside the United States Courthouse in downtown Minneapolis for a pretrial motion hearing in September 2015. Mohamud has been acting as a law clerk for the defense of Mohamed Farah.
Tom Baker for MPR News 2015

 Updated March 29, 11:15 a.m. | Posted March 28, 2:34 p.m.

Federal prosecutors say there's evidence a St. Paul imam serving on the defense team in one of the Minnesota ISIS terror cases appears to have preached about jihad.

In court documents, the government said a "co-conspirator" made the claims against St. Paul Imam Hassan Mohamud, who's been acting as a law clerk for the defense of Mohamed Farah.

Hassan Mohamud has been critical of the ISIS prosecutions and the government's anti-terror program, nationally called Countering Violent Extremism but known locally as Building Community Resilience.

While prosecutors have yet to detail the claims of Mohamud's preaching, they expect to file a motion by Tuesday inquiring about disqualifying him, Murad Mohamud and P. Chinedu Nwaneri, the attorneys for Mohamed Farah.

That could create problems for the defense of Farah, who is facing charges of plotting to travel abroad to join ISIS in Syria. Farah's trial, along with four other young men, including his younger brother, Adnan, is set to start on May 9.

It's unclear if the trial date for Farah will be postponed if his attorneys are disqualified from representing him at trial.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Michael J. Davis ordered federal prosecutors to explain whether there are grounds to disqualify defense attorneys for Farah. 

In his order, Davis referred to claims that Hassan Mohamud was "apparently preaching about jihad and related topics."

Mohamud attributed the government allegation, which he called "false," to his vocal stance to the government's Building Community Resilience program.

"It's all about politics," he said. "If we refused to work with the U.S. Attorney's Office, that doesn't mean we believe terrorism."

"We're against terrorism," he added. "We're against violent extremism. Both of them are not part of the religion."

In 2013, Mohamud said he was part of more than 150 Islamic scholars who went to Mogadishu and issued a fatwa, or a religious edict, against violent extremism.

Mohamud said if he's disqualified from being part of Mohamed Farah's defense team, it would disrupt the trial and the defendant "will never get a fair trial."

"He has a team that are well equipped about both laws — Islamic tradition and American legal system," he said. 

Attorneys for the suspect weren't immediately available for comment. Parents of the Farahs declined to speak on the matter. 

In late February, federal officials barred Mohamud from participating in a tour of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport organized by the Department of Homeland Security, even though he initially received an invitation from authorities. He believed his opposition to the federal anti-radicalization effort was the reason.

Asked about the airport incident, Department of Homeland Security said in a statement Monday that it can't comment on individual cases. The federal agency said it does not bar someone from a public event "based on protected First Amendment activity," but "a security or background check may be run on an individual before he or she is allowed to enter a secure location."  

Ten days ago, Davis denied a request for a change of attorney for Hamza Ahmed, one of the five young men awaiting trial on charges of plotting to travel abroad to join ISIS in Syria.

"Do you have any idea what the magnitude of this case is?" Davis asked Mitchell Robinson, the new attorney that Ahmed wanted to retain.

"I normally wouldn't be doing this, sir, but you stepped your foot into one of the most complicated cases, at a period that's very short before the trial, where the defendant could end up in prison for the rest of his life," Davis told Robinson. "This is a death sentence for him."

A hearing on whether there are grounds to disqualify the attorneys is set on Friday.

Correction (March 29, 2016): An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that prosecutors expect to file a motion inquiring about disqualifying members of the defense for Adnan Farah and Mohamed Farah. Only Mohamed Farah's team would be affected.