Mom implores son to 'tell the government what you did' in ISIS case

Community member and mother Deqa Hussen
Deqa Hussen spoke at a town hall meeting focused on youth recruitment in the Somali community at Sabathani Community Center in Minneapolis last October. Hussen's son, Abdirizak Warsame, was one of the nine young Twin Cities men sentenced last week for their roles in a plot to fight for ISIS. Hussen said she encouraged her son to tell the truth to the government.
Courtney Perry for MPR News 2015

She needed to hear her son confess, but his words still broke her heart.

Nearly one year ago, Deqa Hussen stared down her son, who was sitting behind the glass in a green jumpsuit at the Anoka County jail. A day earlier, federal authorities arrested Abdirizak Warsame — the 10th man in a group of Twin Cities friends charged with planning to enlist themselves with a brutal terrorist group in Syria.

Hussen remembers imploring her eldest son to finally come clean with her.

"Tell me the truth," she said. "You can't lie this time."

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That's when her son ultimately told her, "I did it. I was with the group."

Abdirizak Warsame
Abdirizak Warsame, posted on Facebook on June 19, 2015.
Courtesy of the Warsame family

Not only that, but Warsame admitted he was at one point the group's leader.

Reflecting back on that day in December 2015, Hussen now calls it her worst nightmare.

But after hearing that crushing confession, the single mother of eight said she encouraged her son to do something that likely spared him from spending the next several decades in prison: She pressed him to "tell the government what you did."

Warsame heeded his mother's advice and became one of two cooperating defendants who helped federal prosecutors build the largest ISIS recruitment case in the nation. Earlier this year, he pleaded guilty to conspiring to join the terror group and confessed in court to helping his friends get passports and encouraging them to leave the country.

As a witness, Warsame provided damaging evidence against three friends that helped lead to their convictions. At his sentencing hearing last week, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis told the 21-year-old, "I'm not convinced you're still not a jihadist."

But Davis sentenced Warsame to just two and a half years in prison, far short of the 30- to 35-year sentences delivered to his friends who were convicted of the terrorism charges. Four other men in the case who pleaded guilty but did not cooperate were sentenced to between 10 and 15 years in prison.

Warsame's decision to cooperate was seen as a betrayal by some Somali-American community members. After his arrest, his mother said a community activist even tried to have Hussen persuade her son not to plead guilty.

The Federal Courthouse Building in Minneapolis.
Warsame's trial was held in the courtroom of Judge Michael Davis at U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Hussen recalls telling that activist to back off — in her signature blunt, strong-willed style.

"I said, 'This is my son. He's my hostage. He's my property. I can advocate for him. I don't need [your] advocacy,'" she said.

Over the past several months, Hussen said people have criticized her and her children for being part of a "snitch family."

"For example, I'm walking the street, some of the people see me, look at me like I'm stupid, like I'm a criminal," she said. "They look me down like I put their kids in long-time jail. And I didn't do that. I didn't do it.

"What I did was save my son."

'He ruined his life'

Hussen never imagined she would find herself in this spot. After escaping civil war in Somalia, she landed in the United States in 1995 with her two small children, full of hope and a contagious dream that her kids could become anything here. At the time, Warsame was just 10 months old.

Hussen worked at the front desk of the Brian Coyle community center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, home to thousands of Somali refugees. She later became a legal advocate working with victims of domestic abuse and raised her kids with the belief that they could change the world for the better.

Warsame wrote poems, and younger kids saw him as a role model.

"His aim was to become a doctor," Hussen recalled. "He told me, 'One day, I will be a doctor, and I will treat you, Mom.' Look at this now. He ruined his life."

But in the summer of 2014, more than a year before Warsame's arrest, his mother already knew he was in trouble.

Federal agents had been continually dropping in on the family at their Eagan home, telling Hussen that Warsame was trying to make his way to Syria to fight alongside extremists there.

Hussen initially believed Warsame when he insisted he had no plans to join ISIS. When she and Warsame were subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury in Minneapolis, she told the jurors she believed her son was telling the truth.

But later that day, she learned that when Warsame testified, he pleaded the fifth and refused to tell the jury what he knew. At that point, Hussen was convinced he was hiding something.

After she left the courthouse, Hussen said she called up Warsame's dad in Chicago. She told her ex-husband that after several years of raising their son on her own, she was done.

"Take him back," she remembers telling Warsame's father. "I was kind of desperate. I didn't know who to trust. I said, 'It's your time to raise this boy.'"

Hussen said she wanted to extricate Warsame from whatever bad influences he was entangled with in Minnesota. Putting him on a plane to Chicago to live with his dad for a while was her way of placing him on a straight path.

Young men show their support for those who were sentenced.
A group of young men show their support outside the federal courthouse in Minneapolis for men sentenced for their involvement with ISIS.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Prosecutors acknowledge that moving away appeared to help. In court documents, they stated Warsame wasn't nearly as involved with his buddies as they continued to plot their travels to Syria over the course of the next year. In Chicago, Warsame went to community college and started working at a Walgreens.

But his mother still felt helpless. In Minnesota, a state that has seen dozens of young men leave for overseas terrorist groups over nearly a decade, there is no community support system for parents who worry their kids are slipping down a radical path.

Humera Khan, executive director of Muflehun, a Washington, D.C.-based group specializing in preventing radicalization, said parents have limited choices in how to respond when they see signs that a child is flirting with extremist ideology.

"Their options are to do something themselves — whether they know what to do or not — or to go to law enforcement," said Khan. "There is no third option."

Her nonprofit has yearned to provide community-led interventions for these families. Khan envisioned a national help line that could direct parents to clergy, social workers, lawyers and mental-health counselors — so that their children could get help before they reach the point where they're even thinking of leaving the country or planning an attack.

But the challenge is "there's no legal space to do that," said Khan. "If we try to help in that situation, we can be charged for material support for terrorism."

'I need you guys to wake up'

After Warsame returned to Minnesota in the summer of 2015, his mother became an outspoken — and controversial — voice in her community, pleading with other parents to "wake up" to the dangers of terror recruitment.

In October 2015, she appeared alongside U.S. Attorney Andy Luger and urged parents to partner with federal authorities.

U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger spoke at the town hall meeting focused on youth recruitment in the Somali community at Sabathani Community Center in Minneapolis in October 2015. Deqa Hussen was one of the speakers at the event, presented by Voice of East African Women.
Courtney Perry for MPR News 2015

"I need you guys to wake up and to tell your child, 'Who's recruiting you?' Ask what happened," she said. "We have to stop the denial thing that we have, and we have talk to our kids and work with the FBI."

But just two months later, she learned her own family was far from immune to the grip of ISIS. The FBI arrested Warsame in December 2015.

"I was speaking out about youth recruitment — and someone recruited my son. He was arrested," she said. "I didn't know what was going on. But later on, when I watched the videos, I can't deny that. I cannot say the feds are lying."

After Warsame's arrest, prosecutors showed Hussen surveillance videos of her son shopping for gear for Syria with friends who were planning to leave. Hussen also recalls reviewing evidence that Warsame helped a friend, Abdullahi Yusuf, print his flight itinerary at a library before Yusuf tried to leave the country.

Hussen said she wants her community to come together and find a solution to a sickness that's infecting some of their young.

Burhan Hassan
Burhan Hassan
Courtesy Roosevelt High School

"We need to stop blaming each other," she said. "This issue will never end if we don't find a solution for our boys."

She remembers mentoring Burhan Hassan, a bright teenager from Cedar-Riverside who would drop in with her every day at the Brian Coyle center to check out a basketball. In 2008, he left for Somalia to fight for the terrorist group al-Shabab and was killed.

"I am not better than that mother who lost her son," Hussen said. "I'm very sorry, deeply. I swear to God, I cried. I'm a mother. It's not like I cared for only my child. I cared for every child in this community."

Last week at Warsame's sentencing hearing, he described to a judge his web of lies and his intentions to kill people in Syria who he believed were not true Muslims.

"I've done some horrible things," Warsame said. "I apologize not only to my family but to my whole community. I feel as I've let them down."

In the very back row of the courtroom, tears silently fell down the cheeks of his mom. Hussen said her son did the right thing, and that after many years of hearing his lies, she was proud of him.

"He realized he can't hide anymore, and he's the one who chose to testify and tell the truth," she said. "Telling the truth is not a crime."