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Appeals court upholds sentences of MN men who tried to join ISIS

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Attorney Bruce Nestor, right, speaks to family members and supporters.
Attorney Bruce Nestor, right, spoke to a crowd of family members and supporters of the three Twin Cities men in early June.
Jon Collins | MPR News

A federal appeals court on Friday upheld the convictions and decades-long sentences of three Twin Cities men accused of plotting to travel to Syria to join the terrorist group ISIS.

In June, attorneys for the men — Guled Omar, Abdirahman Daud and Mohamed Farah, all 24 — argued before a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals that their convictions should be overturned.

Defense attorneys argued that the trial judge's instructions to the jury conflated intending to join the terrorist group with intending to murder, and that federal prosecutors should have been required to prove a specific intent to kill.

But in Friday's opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Raymond Gruender wrote "there is overwhelming evidence in the record showing that Farah, Daud, and Omar each knew the object of the conspiracy included intentionally taking lives."

One of the government's key witnesses, Abdullahi Yusuf, testified at trial that the three men knew they would kill people if they reached Syria. Conversations recorded by a friend who started working as an undercover FBI informant "capture their intentions in vivid detail," Gruender wrote. 

"It is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury would have convicted them of the conspiracy even if the district court had adopted an instruction that required the Government to prove a specific intent to kill," he wrote.

The appeals court panel also rejected the argument that the men's sentences were unreasonable. Farah and Daud are each serving 30 years in prison. A judge sentenced Omar, who at one time was the group's leader, to the harshest penalty of 35 years. 

Attorney Bruce Nestor, who represents Daud, had argued his client should have received a sentence that was more in line with what other co-conspirators got, saying Daud was punished for going to trial

But Gruender noted that six others who were charged in the group pleaded guilty and accepted responsibility for their actions. Two of the six cooperated with the government. 

Finally, the appeals court panel didn't buy Farah's argument that he should have been given a new attorney. About a month before the trial, one of Farah's lawyers withdrew from the case after prosecutors alerted the court about a potential conflict of interest involving an imam and paralegal on the defense team. 

At the time, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis asked whether Farah's other attorney, Murad Mohammad, was capable of trying the case alone. Mohammad assured he could, and Farah expressed complete confidence in his abilities. 

"The court admonished Farah at that time to give prompt notice if he was dissatisfied with Mohammad, and Farah concedes that it was his own fault for doing so," Gruender said. 

But four days before the trial, Mohammad tried to step away from the case, citing a breakdown in communication and a lack of trust. The court was "well within its discretion in refusing Farah's request for substitute counsel, particularly on the eve of trial," the judges' opinion said.