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Judge sentences three men to decades in prison in ISIS trial

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Mohamed Farah's mother
Mohamed Farah's mother holds a sign protesting her son's conviction. Farah was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Evan Frost | MPR News

 Updated: 7:45 p.m. | Posted: 11:43 a.m.

A federal judge Wednesday sent three young Twin Cities men to serve decades in prison for their roles in a plot to leave the United States to fight for the terrorist group ISIS.

Guled Omar, 22, who at one point was the group's leader and drew other young men into the conspiracy, received the harshest penalty of 35 years. His friends, Abdirahman Daud and Mohamed Farah, 22, will serve 30 years in prison.

Guled Omar
This photo provided April 23, 2015, by the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office shows Guled Omar.
Hennepin County Sheriff's Office via AP

U.S. District Judge Michael Davis was not swayed by Omar's tearful statement, which caused his mother in the gallery to sob uncontrollably and another family member to leave the courtroom to collect their emotions.

"Everything you have said here, I don't believe," Davis said. 

This came after Omar told the judge he accepted responsibility for his "horrible" actions, but maintained he was lost and vulnerable.

"I've always had energy for justice as a young man, but I lost my way," Omar said. "I've had feelings I did not know how to deal with. I looked to the wrong places for answers. I don't want to blame anyone, but ISIL and its propaganda did take advantage of me."

But prosecutor Andrew Winter said Omar's tears could not be trusted.

"Make no mistake, this defendant is extraordinarily dangerous," Winter said. "Only when backed into a corner, does he attempt to offer false contrition. You can't fix manipulative. You can't fix deceitful. And you can't fix Guled Omar."

Abdirahman Yasin Daud
Abdirahman Yasin Daud
Courtesy Sherburne County Jail

The judge said it was astonishing that Omar would continue to press on with his plan to fight for ISIS even after an older brother joined the terror group al-Shabab in Somalia — bringing anguish to the family — and presumably died there. Another brother was shot in an apparent gang dispute in Minneapolis but survived, Davis said.

But Omar said he's reformed himself since he was taken into federal custody about 19 months ago. He quoted the writer Wendell Berry, and said he's drawn strength from a philosophy professor from Minneapolis Community and Technical College.  

The professor, Matthew Palombo, befriended Omar and has exchanged letters with him since his arrest. Palombo said after the proceedings that the harsh sentences send a message to young Somali-Americans that they are "irredeemable."

"Today is not who Guled is," said Palombo, who has called for a more restorative approach for all of the ISIS defendants. "He is absolutely a different person." 

The second sentence of the day was delivered after a wide-ranging sentencing hearing in which an emotional Abdirahman Daud, 22, begged his fellow young Muslims not to be blinded as he was and fall prey to jihadist ideology.

After the second sentencing
People who came to watch the sentencing left the courthouse in Minneapolis on Wednesday after the second sentencing hearing of the day.
Evan Frost | MPR News

His sense of contrition also appeared to win over the judge, who at times sounded like he was sharing stories with a grandson. But Davis said he must protect the safety of his country, and delivering a long sentence would help incapacitate a Minneapolis "terror cell."

"I'd be shirking my duty if I did not take that into consideration," Davis said.

Today's sentences are the stiffest penalties seen this week for nine men who conspired to join ISIS. Unlike their friends, the three sentenced today did not plead guilty, but instead took their cases to trial and were convicted in June.

Before he was sentenced, Daud struggled to get through his remarks, pausing several times as he choked back tears.

"I'm certainly not being persecuted for my faith. I was certainly not entrapped," Daud said, hanging his head and breathing deeply. "I was not going there to pass out medical kits or food. I was going strictly to fight and kill on behalf of the Islamic State." 

Mohamed Abdihamid Farah
Mohamed Abdihamid Farah of Minneapolis is accused of trying to join the terrorist group ISIS in Syria.
Courtesy Washington County Jail

He chronicled how he adopted brutal ISIS propaganda without seeking countering views from his parents or trusted adults. In doing so, Daud said he lost any semblance of humanity.

"Through self-reflection," he said, "I came to grips of what I'd truly become."

Daud communicated with ISIS fighters and at one point was recorded by an FBI informant saying he wanted to grab AK-47 rifles when he got to Syria so he could shoot Shiites.

Yet on Tuesday, he connected with the judge in ways previously unseen at this week's hearings. Daud, who was born in a Kenyan refugee camp, told Davis he had never asked his mother about life in the camp until after his arrest.

Davis remarked that the resilience and vibrancy of the Somali-American community made the state stronger. His sentences, he said, were not an indictment on the community. "I will fight anyone who says Islam is a dirty religion or one of violence. It is not," Davis said. "I've been stern and harsh in my sentencing for good reason, which is to incapacitate this cell." 

"I have traveled the world trying to figure out what to do with this jihadist behavior," Davis said. "There's nothing in our criminal justice system that can even come close to try to rehabilitate someone who has extreme jihadist ideology ... Terrorists and their supporters should be incapacitated for a long period of time."

Earlier in the day, after delivering Farah's sentence, Davis said he wanted to send a broader message about the dangers of terrorism recruitment in Minneapolis.

"This community needs to understand there is a jihadist cell in this community. Its tentacles spread out. Young people went to Syria and died," the judge said. "You might want to publicize these are just young kids that are misguided. This court is thankful there was a trial so all the evidence could come out ... The lies you told should be published so there's no doubt of what's happening here."

Davis, who has presided over the cases of all nine ISIS defendants, appeared to grow exasperated with Farah during the roughly two-hour hearing.

Farah hesitated when Davis posed a question before many other defendants this week: "Would you look at yourself as a terrorist?" the judge asked.

"Your honor, that's a very good question," Farah said, embarking on a more complicated response that differed from his co-defendants, who all replied in the affirmative. "The actions I have done are what a terrorist would do, but I feel like I'm not, your honor. I'm not a terrorist."

That led the judge down a line of inquiry pressing Farah to admit he lied to a grand jury, to his family, and to federal authorities regarding his intentions to travel to Syria to become a foot soldier for ISIS.

"You're not fooling me," Davis said. "You understand — you and your cell lied, lied and lied, and deceived, deceived and deceived, to go to the Islamic State."

The judge also prompted Farah to admit watching videos depicting the terror group's brutal violence in Iraq and Syria. As he did Tuesday, the judge asked children to leave the courtroom before directing prosecutors to play one of those videos — a 20-minute excerpt that ended with the fatal charring of a caged Jordanian pilot. 

"When your group saw that burning to death of a Jordanian air force lieutenant, you laughed," Davis said.

Farah responded, "Not to my knowledge."

"You didn't?" the judge pressed. "Did you agree burning was the right thing?

"I did at the time, your honor," Farah said.

Shortly before his arrest, prosecutor John Docherty said, Farah was recorded by a friend covertly working for the FBI as he watched the video. "Burn him," Farah said, according to the audio.

And Farah admitted it was his voice captured on tape by an FBI informant uttering that he'd kill a federal agent if "our backs (are) to the wall."

Over a span of six months, Farah tried to leave the country twice — a problem acknowledged by his attorney, Murad Mohammad. In November 2014, he was one of four men who took Greyhound buses to New York in hopes of taking planes to the Middle East, before they were stopped by federal agents at John F. Kennedy airport.

And the following April, along with a friend who was covertly working for the FBI, he joined Abdirahman Daud on a cross-country trip to San Diego to acquire fake passports. He and Daud were arrested there.

Farah's attorney, Murad Mohammad, played down any suggestion that Farah was more culpable than others in their circle of friends. It started with "braggadocious behavior," as these young Muslim-raised men were "one-upping each other in their level of religiosity," Mohammad said.

"They latched onto this concept of jihad," Mohammad said. "They wrote off all the other aspects of their lives. Just like de-radicalization is something that doesn't happen overnight, radicalization is something that doesn't happen overnight either. They radicalized each other."

Farah said he wanted to eventually counsel young people to keep them away from the poisonous ideology that drew him.

"I'm asking you to give me a second chance," Farah pleaded.

  Farah told the judge he lived a straight life — resisting temptations to smoke, drink or join a gang. "But I still felt incomplete, that I was lacking something," he said. "I didn't have a purpose."

When ISIS proclaimed to establish a caliphate for Muslims, "I thought that was the place intended for me," he said. "I found a solution for all my problems, a place to go, with a righteous cause."

He apologized for letting down his parents and younger siblings, who came to watch the hearing. 

"For them to see me today in this orange jumpsuit is not my idea of what a role model should be."

But Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty said federal authorities already gave Farah multiple chances to come clean and turn his life around. Before his arrest, agents met not only with Farah, but with his parents on several occasions, Docherty said. 

Farah has shown he "cannot be deterred," the prosecutor said. "It has been impossible, short of putting him in handcuffs and in custody, (to keep him) from trying to join ISIL."

The government was seeking 30 years in prison and supervised release for life. 

The six defendants who were sentenced Monday and Tuesday had all pleaded guilty, and two of them had cooperated with authorities in testifying or helping make the case against the others.

In punishments handed down Monday and Tuesday, Davis sentenced:

• Abdullahi Yusuf, 20, to time already served, plus 20 years' supervised release.

• Abdirizak Warsame, 21, to 30 months in prison. 

• Zacharia Abdurahman, 21, to 10 years in prison.

• Hamza Ahmed, 21, to 15 years in prison.

• Hanad Musse, 21, to 10 years in prison.

• Adnan Farah, 20, to 10 years in prison.

Correction (Nov. 16, 2016): An earlier version of this story used an incorrect age for Guled Omar.