A federal judge Friday granted a defense attorney's motion to withdraw from representing a young Minneapolis man who faces charges of plotting to join ISIS.
In a packed court hearing in Minneapolis, P. Chinedu Nwaneri, defense attorney for Mohamed Farah, said he asked to be taken off the case altogether "to stop further distractions in this matter," apparently referring to questions surrounding the participation on his legal team of a well-known Twin Cities Muslim religious leader.
Last week, federal prosecutors notified Farah's attorneys that they had evidence that a cooperating ISIS defendant learned "the manner in which to pray on a battlefield where one is engaged in jihad" from Nwaneri's employee, Imam Hassan Mohamud, who was working as a law clerk in Farah's defense.
Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis told prosecutors to file a motion asking whether there were grounds to disqualify Mohamud and Farah's attorneys, Nwaneri and Murad Mohammed, a co-counsel in Farah's case.
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The government's allegation was followed by even more concerns about Farah's defense team. On Thursday, a court filing by an attorney of another young man charged in the case, wrote that Imam Mohamud tried to influence his client's family to get their son to reject a plea deal and to take his case to trial, raising ethical questions.
On Friday, Mohamud told MPR News he never gave other defendants' families legal advice.
In his motion hours before today's hearing, Nwaneri wrote: "It is not in doubt that these events detract defense counsel from concentrating solely on the defense of the various defendants and create future uncertainty in this complex matter."
U.S. District Judge Michael Davis granted Nwaneri's motion. Farah would continue to be represented by defense attorney Murad Mohammed.
Outside the courthouse, Ayan Farah said she's disappointed her son's defense team was drastically cut so close to the trial, set to begin on May 9.
"And from there, an unfair trial will start," she said.
Community leaders and several supporters, including anti-war protesters, joined Ayan Farah outside the federal court building in Minneapolis. The group, including Jaylani Hussein of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the imam is being targeted because of his outspoken views against the government's anti-terror program in the U.S. Somali community.
In the courtroom today, Mohamed Farah told Davis that he's confident in his remaining counsel. But it's possible the judge will appoint another attorney to assist in the case.
Farah's defense attorney, Murad Mohammed, said prosecutors are using a loaded term to scare people away.
"The word jihad has been used inappropriately throughout the government's pleadings," he said. "The word jihad means to struggle in Arabic. It can be jihad for me getting somewhere on time, which it usually is."
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty said the cooperating defendant, Abdirizak Warsame, was secretly recorded by an FBI informant on April 2, 2015 while talking to another man in the alleged conspiracy.
The men were talking about how to pray on the battlefield, he said.
"This was not a discussion of an abstract theological concept." Docherty added the prayer discussion got them "psyched up to go to Syria" to join ISIS.
About two weeks later, the FBI informant's six friends were arrested.