MINNEAPOLIS—For Abdullahi Yusuf, the path to supporting a terrorist organization started with homework.
“One day in class everyone got assigned a different country to write about, and I got Syria,” Yusuf told a hushed federal courtroom in Minneapolis on Friday. The assignment, which he received in his senior year in fall 2013, involved writing a paper and making a Powerpoint presentation. But even after he finished the work, Yusuf kept watching YouTube videos about Syria’s ongoing civil war.
“All the atrocities that were going on there, in the Syrian conflict… I found what was going on there wrong,” he said.
A few months later—in part, he claimed, because of that research for the class project—he bought a plane ticket to Istanbul in a failed attempt to reach Syria and join ISIS.
The 20-year-old is testifying here in the trial of three of his friends, who are accused of joining a conspiracy with Yusuf and a half-dozen other young Somali-Americans to join ISIS. Yusuf is one of six defendants who have pled guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization.
Tall and skinny with a buzzcut, Yusuf sat in the witness stand with his hands folded in front of him. He wore a beige sweater, grey sweatpants, and peach-colored flip-flops. Across the room, the three defendants—Abdirahman Daud, 22; Mohamed Farah, 22; and Guled Omar, 21—watched mostly impassively.
Yusuf is one of the star witnesses for the prosecution in the trial of the three young men, who are facing life in prison for conspiracy to commit murder outside the U.S. He is one of three friends expected to testify against the defendants over the next few weeks.
The defendants’ attorneys—who will cross-examine Yusuf on Monday—are likely to argue that Yusuf is saying what the government wants in order to avoid a harsh sentence for himself. In opening statements, they suggested they’d focus on how Yusuf has changed his story to federal investigators multiple times. Some of Yusuf’s family members also question his account.
Even so, Yusuf’s testimony on Friday painted a detailed portrait of the slow and gradual growth in a young man's desire to join ISIS and fight abroad.
The son of a truck driver, Yusuf was born in Nairobi and came to Minneapolis with his family at a young age. Before he got the assignment during his senior year at Simley High School, outside Minneapolis, he didn’t know much about Syria, he said. He started watching YouTube videos about the civil war from CNN, Frontline, and Vice. As Yusuf learned more, he became more and more distressed with the atrocities being committed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
“He was bombing innocent civilians,” Yusuf testified. “I found it shocking… I don’t think a government’s supposed to bomb its own people.”
At the same time, Yusuf said, he was also watching the transformation of a friend. Hanad Mohallim, who Yusuf said was his “best friend,” used to like sports and would “keep up with the latest fashion trends.” But during his senior year, Yusuf noticed that Mohallim had become more reserved and solitary. “He was a lot more religious—more serious,” Yusuf said.
One night at the local mosque gymnasium in March 2014, Yusuf was playing basketball when Mohallim tried to get his attention. “He told me several times he had something important to talk about but I was too busy playing basketball,” Yusuf said.
That was the last time he ever saw Mohallim. On March 9, Mohallim boarded a plane from Minneapolis to Turkey. From there, federal authorities say, he traveled to Syria to join ISIS. Now he is presumed dead.
Yusuf recounted several conversations with Somali-American friends, over basketball or in mosques, about the Syrian civil war and why Mohallim left. At a mosque late one night, a friend pulled out an iPad and started showing him more videos from Syria—except this time, not from "mainstream" sources like CNN. The videos, Yusuf said, were from a YouTube channel called “Enter the Truth,” and included narration about “the innocent people that were dying, about taking up arms and going over there, stuff like that.” The videos also talked about “the corruption of the west and stuff like that.”
The group of friends began hanging out more regularly, talking about the Syrian war, and watching videos. Yusuf said one of the three defendants, Daud, suggested he watch another video narrated by Anwar Al-Awlaki. Omar, another defendant, told him to download a PDF of a book—"Black Flags from the East"—that lauded the work of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. One night, Yusuf remembered, he stayed up until 4 a.m. watching the videos alone in his room.
The turning point, he remembered, was one day when they met at a mosque and things changed from just talking about current events to planning future action. A group of the young men, including the three defendants, started plotting out routes to get to Syria, he said. Once, they went to play paintball—he remembered them shouting "Allahu Akbar" while playing.
Much of Yusuf’s testimony focused on the role of Guled Omar, one of the defendants. “I was recruited by Guled Omar… to get to Syria and fight for ISIL,” he said at one point. Omar raised his eyebrows and opened his mouth, but didn’t say anything. Later, Yusuf said, “We decided according to Islamic tradition, there should be an emir [of the group]… Everyone voted, and Guled became the emir.”
Around the same time, they reconnected with Mohallim, Yusuf’s old best friend, who contacted him over Kik and said he was fighting for ISIS. He encouraged them to come, and assured them that getting over the border from Turkey was easy.
Eventually, Yusuf decided he needed a passport. But when he went to the Minneapolis passport office on April 28, 2014 to apply for an expedited passport, his interview there raised red flags. He told an immigration official he was going on a vacation to Istanbul and staying at a hotel, but couldn’t name the hotel or show proof of a reservation. He had never been there, had no family there, and couldn’t name any tourist sites he wanted to see. The passport official tipped off the FBI.
The next month, he bought a plane ticket for May 28: Minneapolis to New York’s JFK airport to Moscow and finally to Istanbul. But after he got through security in the Minneapolis airport, FBI agents stopped him. He gave the same answers he had given the passport official—but the agents weren’t convinced and didn’t let him get on the plane.
Later that year, when he was still 18, Yusuf was arrested. He said at first he didn’t tell prosecutors the whole story, covering up the involvement of some of the defendants, whom he said he’s known for years. “I wanted to cover for my former friends, I didn’t want them to go to prison for life,” he said.
But eventually, he changed his mind. Yusuf, who is facing 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to provide material support to ISIS, could get a reduced sentence if his testimony provides substantial assistance to the government. He’s had numerous meetings with the FBI and the prosecutors, who defense attorneys say have coached him well. His testimony sounded well-rehearsed.
Kamal Hassan, Yusuf’s uncle and a leader in the Minneapolis Somali community, told reporters during a court break that he thought his nephew’s account didn’t add up. Specifically, he said he doubted the school project story, and thought that other older men may have recruited Yusuf. He also wondered about the testimony regarding the late-night mosque meetings. “Why would a teenager stay until 2 a.m. in a mosque?” Hassan asked.
It’s also not completely clear from Yusuf's testimony so far how realistic or serious the alleged plan to join ISIS was. In his direct examination, Yusuf messed up the name of the terrorist organization he said he was trying to join. When asked by prosecutor John Docherty to explain the acronym ISIL, Yusuf said it stood for “Islamic State of Iraq and Lebanon.” As Docherty pointed out, the L actually means Levant.
At one point, Docherty asked Yusuf what he thought he would do in Syria. “I was going to join ISIS and join a training camp,” Yusuf said. What did you know about ISIS, Docherty asked. “It was a group that fought the Assad regime,” he replied.
Did you think about being killed? “I didn’t think about that at the time.”
Did you think about killing people?
Yusuf paused for a second. “I didn’t think about that at the time.”
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.