Long road ends: 3 Minnesotans guilty of plotting to join ISIS

Omar, Farah, Daud
Guled Ali Omar, Mohamed Abdihamid Farah, Abdirahman Yasin Daud were found guilty of plotting to join ISIS and commit murder overseas.
Associated Press

When the conspiracy began in 2014, when the plan to leave the country was discussed, the men were teenagers, barely out of high school, and had rudimentary knowledge of the Islamic religion.

So the men set out to understand more about their faith. They met in groups, discussed the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the history of the Sahaba, the Prophet's companions.

Their cause slowly progressed into discussions about jihad and the Syrian conflict. The web of Somali-American friends, many who were born in the United States and had difficulty communicating in Somali with their parents, suddenly found themselves thinking about traveling to Syria to join ISIS.

Between 2014 and 2015, the government arrested nine of those men and charged them with serious terrorism-related charges. Six pled guilty to plotting to join ISIS.

Guled Omar, 21; Abdirahman Daud, 22; and Mohamed Farah, 22, however, took their cases to a Twin Cities jury in a trial that drew worldwide interest and opened a window onto ISIS' sophisticated propaganda and recruiting techniques.

On Friday, after a 17-day trial and several days of deliberations, 12 white jurors — seven women and five men — found the three men guilty of plotting to join ISIS and commit murder overseas.

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Family members sobbed upon hearing the verdicts. Plotting to commit murder overseas is a charge that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. The three men were taken into custody by U.S. marshals.

Reactions to ISIS verdict
Fadumo Hussein wipes her eyes as she leaves the Federal Courthouse shortly after her son Guled Ali Omar was found guilty of terrorism charges.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Farah hugged his attorney Murad Mohammad and waved to his family before he was taken into custody. Daud's mother wiped tears from her eyes with her scarf and abruptly exited the courtroom. Omar's mother sat in the courtroom throughout the proceeding, her face wet with tears as she heard the word "guilty" again and again.

A sentencing date has not been set. Community activist Sadik Warfa said an appeal is planned.

The verdict was read amid heavy security around the Minneapolis federal courthouse. Court was remarkably quiet prior to the verdict with people whispering and journalists checking their phones and getting notepads ready.

The convictions were the culmination of more than two years of federal investigation into the activities of the conspiracy.

This was the first time individuals facing ISIS-related charges were tried in Minnesota, home to one of the largest clusters of ISIS defendants in the nation.

A year prior to their arrests in 2015, three of the men's friends suddenly disappeared from their homes. They ended up in Syria and took up arms for the terrorist group ISIS.

The FBI was alarmed.

As agents began investigating the men who were left behind in Minnesota, a group of Somali-Americans, some who were childhood friends, were devising ways to evade authorities.

They met at parks, Somali malls, restaurants, at the gym and mosques. They watched the latest ISIS propaganda videos. The killing and suffering of Muslim children and women in Syria touched them. Some applied for expedited passports; others were stopped at airports.

Many of those friends went to the same school, played pickup basketball games together and later worked at the same UPS facility in Mendota Heights.

Reactions to ISIS verdict
Defense attorney Murad Mohammad speaks to the media alongside community activist Omar Jamal after his client Mohamed Farah was found guilty.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The men knew they were the "hot boys on the block," as one of them put it, meaning they were under the scrutiny of the FBI.

The first phase of the conspiracy started in the spring of 2014, when the men exchanged messages with Hanad Mohallim, a young man who left the Twin Cities on March 9, 2014, at age 18, and went to become one of the first Minnesotans to leave for Syria to fight for the terrorist group ISIS. He later died there.

Inspired by Mohallim's departure, the group began discussing how to leave the country for Syria and ways to finance their travels. The meetings included Omar, Farah and Daud.

In May of 2014, their friend Abdullahi Yusuf, who has since pleaded guilty, attempted to fly out of the the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. FBI agents, who were awaiting him at the airport, prevented him from flying to Turkey. But a day later, a second man in the group, Abdi Nur, successfully left and ended up in Syria.

That same month, when he was 19, Omar, Yusuf Jama and the eventual informant Abdirahman Bashir planned to drive to California. Omar withdrew $5,000 from his college financial aid account to finance travel to Syria.

But after Omar placed his luggage in the rental vehicle, a family member confronted him and the group was forced to abandoned their travel plans.

Jama successfully left the country on June 9, 2014, flying out of New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport after taking a Greyhound bus from Minneapolis. He became the third man in the group to join ISIS.

In the fall of 2014, four men in the group, including Farah, tried to duplicate Jama's trick. They took a Greyhound bus from Minneapolis to New York on Nov. 8, 2014. When they arrived at JFK, FBI agents were there waiting for them. They stopped the four friends from boarding international flights. None of the men was arrested at the time.

That same day, Omar again tried to travel from Minneapolis to San Diego but was stopped at the airport and not allowed to board the plane.

Abdirahman Bashir, who was part of the group, was beginning to get worried.

During the last phase of the conspiracy, as the FBI intensified its surveillance in early 2015, Bashir decided to cooperate with the government as authorities zeroed in on the group. Using a hidden microphone, he began to secretly record conversations of his friends. A California native, his friends called him "Cali."

"I stopped being radical," Bashir said. "I started listening to my father and uncle. A lot of scholars say everything ISIS is doing is wrong."

Just months before the men were arrested in April 2015, Bashir told the group he had a contact who could provide fake passports for travel to Syria.

In April 2015 with the help of Bashir, Farah and Daud drove to San Diego to obtain those fake passports, and were soon arrested there. Adnan Farah, Omar, Abdurahman and Musse were also arrested on the same day in Minneapolis as part of the joint terrorism task force investigation, bringing to eight the number of men arrested since 2014. The ninth man, Abdirizak Warsame, was arrested in December 2015.

Throughout the trial, the government extensively used recordings made by Bashir, which prosecutors said provided a "fly-on-the-wall view of this conspiracy."

"These three defendants convict themselves with the words that come out of their own mouths," said U.S. Assistant Attorney John Docherty.

Omar, Farah and Daud "participated wholeheartedly" in the three phases of the conspiracy, which started in the spring of 2014 and culminated with the arrest last year of the six men, Docherty told jurors.

But families of the men insisted their sons were innocent and never intended to harm their country. During the trial, their defense attorneys portrayed the young men as talkers but not doers — teens caught on tape slamming America and talking big about fighting in Syria but nothing more.

When prosecutors, for example, played portions of secretly recorded tapes where Omar threatened to kill Turkish security officials he called "freaking pigs," Omar told the court his words were only youthful boasts intended to impress his friends.

"I was trying to sound like a big, bad guy who knows what he's doing," he told the court. "We all boast. Everyone wants to sound more tough."

Reactions to ISIS verdict
Community activist Sadik Warfa speaks to the media outside of the federal courthouse.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The case divided Minnesota's Somali-American community. Some leaders argued that the government was overreaching in its anti-terrorism efforts, arresting impressionable young Muslim men who recently graduated from high schools and never left the United States. None of the men on trial has previously committed a crime.

Many in the Twin Cities Somali community were shocked at the magnitude of the arrests and charges. Mothers said they hadn't slept for days after their sons were arrested. The community came under scrutiny from law enforcement and the media.

Divisions between families of defendants and government witnesses boiled over publicly during the trial as witnesses testified against former friends.

Two mothers of witnesses were accused of being "spies" after their sons gave lengthy testimonies about their involvement in the conspiracy.

During the course of the trial, security at the court was beefed up. Court security lined up families of defendants before they are allowed to enter the courtroom. Homeland Security guards wearing bulletproof vests with K-9 dogs roamed the main entrance of the court building.

U.S. attorney Andy Luger
U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Andy Luger spoke to the media after a jury returned guilty verdicts.
Brandt Williams | MPR News

U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Andrew Luger on Friday applauded the jury and verdicts.

"There were repeated attempts (to go to Syria) even after acquiring deep knowledge of the brutality" of ISIS, he told reporters after the verdict was read. "They knew exactly what they were doing, becoming terrorists bound and determined to kill" for ISIS.

Luger said there are community leaders outside the courthouse who reject that there's terror recruiting "in our own backyards." ISIS, he added, continues to reach out "to our youth with a powerful and false message. This is no time for people to stick their heads in the sand."

Warfa said later in the day the family and community were grieving.

"Young men have been arrested for a crime we believe is set up. That's what the community believes. But now we have to respect," Warfa added. "In America, we have a system. We may disagree with the system, but the court has rendered a verdict."