MINNEAPOLIS—Both sides in the largest trial of alleged ISIS supporters to date laid out their cases in opening statements Wednesday, previewing a trial that appears to be based on hours of secret recordings made by an FBI informant.
Three young Somali-American men in Minneapolis are accused of attempting to join and fight for the Islamic State. Abdirahman Daud, 22, Mohamed Farah, 22, and Guled Omar, 21, are facing charges of conspiracy to commit murder outside the U.S. and attempting to provide material support to a terrorist group. They were among a group of more than a dozen Somali-American friends who met to discuss ISIS and the Syrian civil war; six other young men have pled guilty to lower charges.
In front of a jury of 16 people selected this week—all white, despite hopes by families and advocates for the defendants for diverse panel—both sides made opening statements. Prosecutors argued that the three men made repeated attempts to leave Minnesota for Syria, while their defense attorneys say that they were just talking, not actually plotting to go fight.
The defendants, who face potential life sentences, “tried tirelessly to travel to Syria to fight and kill for ISIS,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Winter told the jurors. “Each defendant seated here today was committed to the cause of committing jihad… and participating in the killing sprees in Syria and Iraq.”
The government is focusing on what prosecutors say was a set of attempts by different groups of young Somali-Americans to leave the country for Syria: in May 2014, November 2014, and April 2015. The young men, often in groups of three or four, would either fly directly to Syria from Minneapolis or first drive to New York or Mexico and then fly to Turkey. Three men did manage to travel to Syria and are believed to have joined ISIS. None of the three defendants on trial managed to leave the country, having been stopped by their families or authorities.
Winter said the defendants wanted to join ISIS after watching hundreds of promotional videos produced by the terrorist group. He played a few minutes of one of the videos, which showed ISIS fighters running around a battlefield. At one point, he said, Farah was watching the same video in the bathroom of a UPS facility where he worked.
“The defendants watched these videos, they were inspired by these videos,” Winter said. “These images formed in the minds of the defendants a clear and unmistakable view of what they would be doing in Syria.”
The government’s strongest evidence seems to be a series of conversations secretly recorded by one of the men’s friends, Abdirahman Bashir, who became a cooperating witness for the government. Prosecutors are expected to play 77 snippets from the recordings during the trial, some a few minutes and some much longer. In addition to the recordings, Bashir and two other co-defendants who pled guilty will be testifying in person, Winter said.
“We are going to kill the [non-believers], I’ll kill them, bro,” Guled Omar, one of the defendants, said according to an excerpt of one transcript presented in Winter's opening statement. Farah, in another excerpt, suggested killing “that one fed”—a federal agent.
According to the prosecution, the defendants were in contact with ISIS fighters, including several from Minneapolis. They presented one transcript in which Omar said that Abdi Nur, one of the men who successfully made it to Syria, sent him a document of names and addresses of U.S. air force pilots in Minnesota and suggested he attack them. Omar did not go through with that plan, both sides agree.
The men communicated through Kik, a messaging app that doesn’t keep records. “If they knew about Kik, we’d all be arrested,” Farah said in one excerpt presented by the government.
The last plot to leave the country that Winter described came in April 2015, when Daud and Farah—along with Bashir, who was recording them—drove in Daud’s 2008 Honda Accord from Minneapolis to San Diego to pick up what they believed were fake passports they could use to cross into Mexico. Then, prosecutors allege, they planned to fly from Mexico to Turkey and cross into Syria.
On recordings made during the road trip, Omar mused about how ISIS fighters could get back into the U.S. through the same Mexico route. “Those dudes, like from Iraq, can come to Mexico…they already look Mexican, they’re Arab,” he said, according to a transcript excerpt. Daud, in another alleged recording, said, "I'm going to spit on America at the border crossing."
In San Diego, the three met with a man named “Miguel,” who they believed was going to deliver the passports, in a warehouse within eyesight of the Mexican border. But Miguel was actually an undercover FBI agent, and Daud and Farah were arrested. Omar was arrested the same day in Minneapolis.
In three separate opening statements, defense attorneys for each client argued that the case wasn’t as watertight as the prosecution made it out to be. Bruce Nestor, who represents Daud, and Glenn Bruder, who represents Omar, both said their clients talked tough to impress their friends but didn’t actually plan on traveling to and fighting in Syria. They also attempted to cast doubt upon Bashir, the witness who was working for the government, who they said has been paid more than $100,000 in taxpayer money by the FBI.
Nestor described Daud as a deeply religious young man who hung out with other young Somali-Americans and discussed events in Syria but didn’t actually plot to join ISIS. “Evidence that a person was at the scene of an event or associated with others does not alone prove that somebody was a member of a conspiracy,” Nestor said. “It’s still the law of this land and the Constitution of the United States that it’s not illegal to watch videos or talk about ISIL.”
He noted that Daud had a valid passport and could have left the country in early 2014, but didn’t. The reason why Daud drove to San Diego in April 2015, he said, was because he was pressured by Bashir, the cooperating witness. “He ensnared Mr. Daud into these plans,” Nestor said.
Bruder similarly said his client, Omar, was “all talk and no action.” Omar, who he said was born in a refugee camp to a family fleeing civil war in Somalia, had no intent to join the terrorist group, he claimed. “Omar never even left the city of Minneapolis,” Bruder said.
The government alleges that two trips Omar planned to take to California in spring and then fall 2014—first driving with other friends, then flying by himself—were pretext for traveling on to Syria. (Omar was stopped from leaving first by his family, then by federal agents who prevented him from getting on a flight.) But Bruder said the motives were far more benign. “This wasn’t connected to any plot to travel to Syria at all, Guled was simply trying to take a vacation,” Bruder said, noting that he had no bus ticket to travel to Mexico and no plane ticket to travel from Mexico to Turkey or Syria.
At the end of his statement, Bruder told the jury about several recordings of his client that the prosecutors hadn’t mentioned, in what he said was a discussion about going to Syria to fight: “That’s not Allah’s decree.” “Bro, I don’t want it.” If you travel to Syria, “you’re just going to be another statistic, bro.”
Meanwhile, Murad Mohammad, the lawyer representing Farah, gave an opening statement that lasted only a few minutes, was comparably vague, and didn’t even introduce his client. He urged the jurors to “not be swayed by your emotions, and not be swayed by videos that my client did not produce, did not watch, did not agree with.”
Last week, Mohammad asked to be removed from the case, and Farah told Judge Michael Davis on Monday that he wanted a new lawyer. Davis declined the request and forced Mohammad to continue representing Farah.
The prosecution began calling witnesses Wednesday afternoon. The trial is expected to continue several weeks.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.