Men in Minn. ISIS case seek leniency; prosecutors recommend sentences

Updated: 10:15 p.m. | Posted: 6:03 p.m.

Federal prosecutors are recommending decades-long prison sentences for three young Somali-American men convicted of trying to join ISIS — and up to 15 years for their friends who pleaded guilty to the terror charges.

An alleged leader of the group, Guled Omar, would receive 40 years in prison if a federal judge agrees with the recommendation from the government. Prosecutors said such a sentence would be appropriate to provide fair punishment and to deter others from joining foreign terrorist groups.

"Several men from Minnesota have died in Syria as a result of the conspiracy of which defendant Guled Omar was a part," prosecutors said in a court document. "The defendant has demonstrated a total lack of remorse and responsibility for his crimes."

Prosecutors are also suggesting 30-year sentences for Mohamed Farah and Abdirahman Daud, who were convicted along with Omar in June. A judge could sentence the three men to up to life in prison.

The recommendations, filed in court late Thursday by Minnesota U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger's office, come at the same time defendants are making the case for leniency as their sentencing dates draw near.

In court documents filed this week, some apologized for their actions and detailed their radicalization and eventual break from violent ideology.

Among the documents is a letter from Hanad Musse, a young Minneapolis man who pleaded guilty to conspiring with his friends to join ISIS, to the judge who'll decide his fate.

Written from the Sherburne County jail, Musse wrote that he now renounces terrorism and is deeply sorry for his actions.

When he was 19, Musse was one of four young men who took a Greyhound bus from Minneapolis to New York in November 2014 hoping to fly overseas and eventually join ISIS. Federal agents intercepted them at John F. Kennedy International Airport and prevented them from flying out.

In the recent court record, Musse detailed how, even as a strong student and loving son, he became vulnerable to terror recruitment. He said when he was in high school, he relocated to Boston after his mother was diagnosed with cancer and then followed her to Kenya. Musse said he felt adrift there and those feelings continued after his return to Minnesota.

But it wasn't until he stumbled upon a Facebook video of a bombing in Syria that Musse said he became attracted to ISIS out of a desire to protect the Syrian people. He tried to leave the United States twice.

He said he now recognizes he was "stupid and blind" to believe that.

Musse faces up to 15 years in prison, but he's asking federal district Judge Michael Davis to consider a sentence of six years. Another man in the conspiracy, Abdullahi Yusuf, is requesting supervised release — meaning no additional prison time. He pleaded guilty in February 2015 and has been in counseling and rehabilitation with the nonprofit Heartland Democracy.

In a brief filed Thursday, replete with childhood pictures of Yusuf and his family, his lawyers said he was searching for a sense of belonging and purpose when he became "entranced" by ISIS. Torn between two worlds, he felt there was no hope for him in the United States, wrote attorneys Manny Atwal and Jean Brandl.

"In reflecting back, he realizes he also wanted meaning in his life," Yusuf's attorneys said. "He wanted to belong to something important, to matter, to make a difference. His recruiters recognized this desire and offered him excitement, adventure, meaning, and belonging."

Yusuf was one of three men in the conspiracy — including an FBI informant — who testified against his peers at trial. Prosecutors acknowledged Yusuf's cooperation in the case and are recommending a prison sentence of 3.5 years.

The other defendant who pleaded guilty and testified at trial, Abdirizak Warsame, requested serving 18 months or less. His lawyer, Robert Sicoli, mentioned Warsame's public denouncement of ISIS in a "60 Minutes" interview — an arrangement sought by U.S. Attorney Luger as he tries to build the government's fight against violent extremism.

Prosecutors recommended a sentence of 4.5 years for Warsame.

Omar, who faces the stiffest recommended sentence of 40 years, is seeking 15 years or less. His lawyer noted that Omar tried to plead guilty to the charge of conspiring to help ISIS, similar to arrangements struck for his friends in the conspiracy. But prosecutors rejected Omar's requests for a plea deal.

"Omar's involvement is no more worrisome than many of his fellow Defendants who, due to more favorable plea negotiations, face significantly shorter sentences," wrote Omar's attorney, Glenn Bruder. "A Defendant's future should not be so dramatically affected by the Government's charging and plea negotiating decisions."

Davis will have a tough job after reading the dueling recommendations from the defendants and the government, said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

"You get a sense of remorse," Hughes said of the writings from the defendants. "You have to make a determination as a judge, 'How much of a penalty does this deserve? How much punishment is enough for a 19-year-old individual to decide to join a terrorist organization?' It's not an easy decision."

Sentencing for the nine men is scheduled for Nov. 14-16.

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