Suspect in Minnesota ISIS terror case changes plea to guilty

Adnan Abdihamid Farah
Adnan Farah
Courtesy Sherburne County Jail

Updated 4:45 p.m. | Posted 11:52 a.m.

Before he told a judge what inspired him to plot to join ISIS, before he said he was sorry to disappoint his parents, Adnan Farah's mother collapsed in the court gallery and was rushed to the hospital for treatment.

"I'm more than sorry for the pain I've caused my parents," said 20-year-old Farah , his voice appearing to break. "If I had listened to them, I would not be where I am today. I'm sorry."

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"My parents love me the most in this world," he added.

In the emotionally riveting court hearing Thursday, Farah told U.S. District Judge Michael Davis he argued with co-defendants in the case about if what they were plotting was the right thing.

He said he was attracted to ISIS after he watched more than 100 of its propaganda videos, which showed children asking for help, ISIS handing out food aid to Muslims in Syria and jihadists fighting the Syrian government forces.

Months before he was arrested, Farah said he was influenced by the videos and lectures of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American firebrand who preached jihad but also lectured on Islam. He was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.

"At the time when I started looking at the videos, I became more religious," Farah said. "I started devoting my time to God."

Farah and a group of his friends then began meeting at Somali malls, at mosques and restaurants. They called each other and communicated via text.

He said his parents didn't know about his plans, but was aware that he was under the watch of the FBI. His parents were shocked when Adnan's passport suddenly arrived in their mail without their knowing, he said.

"I didn't want them to know of my missions," he told the judge.

His mother hid Farah's passport because she was afraid he would use it to leave the country, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors had offered plea deals to Adnan Farah more than once over the past year, but he had refused to take them.

However, Jon Hopeman, an attorney for ISIS defendant Zacharia Abdurahman, said Farah shared a jail pod with Hopeman's client and another defendant over several months and apparently had wanted to plead guilty.

"Farah was the most vocal and insistent about the wisdom of pleading," Hopeman stated in a court document filed last month.

But Farah suddenly changed his mind. Questions arose as to whether a St. Paul imam who had been working as a law clerk for the defense team representing Adnan Farah's older brother, Mohamed, had tried to persuade the families of the defendants to take their sons' cases to trial.

The imam, Hassan Mohamud, said he only provided spiritual guidance to the families, not legal advice.

Last September, the parents of Adnan fired Paul Engh, the attorney appointed to represent their son. The family retained Kenneth Udoibok to replace Engh.

Udoibok stopped short of naming individuals who interfered with his client's case, but said he agrees with Hopeman's declaration.

Farah's change of plea was unusual with less than four weeks left before the trial. Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Winter said they decided to give Farah another offer after finding evidence that a legal counsel for one of the co-defendants prevented Farah from fully reviewing his case.

In Thursday's court hearing, Farah said his family was against his decision to plead guilty.

"My family strongly believed I could prove my case," he said. "This is the hardest decision I've ever had to make."

By taking the plea deal, Farah avoided a possible sentence of life in prison. He now faces up to 15 years in jail.

Unlike several others in the alleged conspiracy, Farah never tried to travel from an airport in an effort to leave the country. Federal authorities say, however, he was involved with discussions to leave the United States to join ISIS.

"My client is now 20, just turned 20, went into custody at 19, and he's experiencing the full weight of the federal government," Udoibok said. "That's stressful to anybody."

ISIS' videos are designed to attract teenagers and his client was not planning to be a fighter, Udoibok, added. "It started off out of altruistic reasons. He wanted to help people that are less privileged."

Farah's brother Mohamed and three other men are expected to face trial on May 9.

The court room, which is usually packed with family members and friends when ISIS defendants appear before Davis, was sparsely filled.

Ayan Farah
Ayan Farah
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News 2015

Adnan Farah's plea hearing started late on Thursday after his mother, Ayan collapsed with chest pain as soon as she stood for the judge when he entered the courtroom. She was taken to Abbott Northwestern Hospital and was discharged around 4 p.m.

She said she was already stressed about the events in the past few weeks, where her older son lost two-thirds of his legal team.

"My blood pressure was very high," she told MPR News, "and I was suffering from lack of sleep."

Davis ordered Farah to be evaluated by Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies, to help inform the judge's sentencing decision.

Davis is pioneering a program to assess the risk posed by five ISIS defendants from the Minneapolis area who have pleaded guilty in the ISIS cases and to determine if they can be rehabilitated.

With Thursday's plea, the breakdown of Minnesota's 10 ISIS cases includes five guilty pleas, four suspects headed for trial in May, and one presumably in Syria.