Mahdi Hussein Furreh was supposed to be sentenced Tuesday for his role in a terror conspiracy, but his hearing abruptly ended for the day after a judge demanded to know why the Hopkins truck driver was spending four to six hours a day at a local mosque.
"He has not been a saint," said U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, in response to information he received from federal probation officials. "We don't know what he was doing at the mosque for long periods of time."
Furreh, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, was released from federal custody in October 2014. Probation officers have been tracking Furreh's movements through an ankle bracelet and testified Tuesday that he was regularly spending several hours at a mosque, though they could not provide exact dates.
Furreh appeared confused by the claim, and his attorney, Manny Atwal, said in court she was not previously made aware of it.
"I honestly don't remember that," Furreh told the judge.
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Through his attorney, he said it's possible he went to worship at a mosque at the Karmel Mall in Minneapolis, and he may have lingered longer at the surrounding businesses.
The hearing will resume Wednesday morning. Officials with U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services are expected to provide more specifics on Furreh's whereabouts.
Mosques — as well as restaurants, schools and private residences — have all been places where Twin Cities men met secretly to plot their travels and enlistment with overseas terror groups. Most recently, nine young men were sentenced last year for conspiring to join ISIS in Syria.
The inquiry into Furreh's whereabouts was an unusual development in the case of the 34-year-old man. He's facing eight years in prison for lying to federal authorities who were investigating the waves of departures of al-Shabab recruits from Minnesota.
In March 2013, Furreh himself traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, hoping to enlist with the extremists in chase of a better life and salary, he said. At the time, his wife had abandoned him and had taken their three daughters with her, according to a court document filed by his attorney, and he was intrigued by promises of a fresh start.
But Furreh said once he arrived in Kenya and heard the horrific stories of people who escaped Somalia to flee from al-Shabab, he changed his mind. He said he emailed his travel agent to put him on an earlier flight back to the U.S.
Before he could leave, though, he was arrested by Kenyan police. He was never charged with a crime, but he lied to both Kenyan authorities as well as the FBI who interviewed him there. While suited up in camouflage and heavy boots, he denied that he had considered joining al-Shabab, according to a court filing from federal prosecutors.
And after returning to Minnesota in June 2013, he continued lying to the FBI — particularly about his contact with an al-Shabab supporter, Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax.
Federal authorities believe Faarax, a former taxi driver from Minneapolis, helped radicalize some of the men recruited for al-Shabab. Faarax has been indicted on terrorism charges and is still believed to be at large in Somalia.
But prosecutors allege Furreh's connections to the conspiracy go back even further and tie him to convicted ISIS conspiracy leader Guled Omar, whose older brother was one of the first Twin Cities men believed to have joined al-Shabab.
A court document filed by prosecutors last year says Furreh was in the car when Omar drove two other men, Omar Ali Farah and Mohamed Guled Osman, to the Twin Cities airport in July 2012.
Prosecutors stated that Furreh was prepared to testify that he and Omar both knew that the two travelers planned to join al-Shabab when they took them to the airport. Furreh did not end up testifying in Omar's trial, but prosecutors are arguing for a lighter sentence given that Furreh has helped the government with its investigation.
At his hearing Tuesday, Furreh told the judge he was influenced by Omar — who is about 12 years younger than him — and another friend when he agreed to fight for al-Shabab.
Furreh's attorney is proposing three years of supervised release or five years of probation. Furreh maintains he lied to authorities because he was nervous and scared, and to protect his friends.
But Davis, the judge, told Furreh he's not convinced that the defendant has given up his old ways.
"Your attorney is asking me to give you keys to the Mercedes and to be on the street," he said. "You lied, you lied, you lied. Why should I believe you?"