MINNEAPOLIS—The largest trial in the country of accused ISIS supporters started here this week, with three young men facing potential life sentences.
Abdirahman Daud, 22, Mohamed Farah, 22, and Guled Omar, 21, are charged with conspiracy to commit murder outside the U.S. and attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization. They've all pled not guilty.
The three are part of a group of 10 Somali-American friends in the Minneapolis area who prosecutors say attempted to travel to Syria and join the Islamic State. Six of the 10 have pled guilty to lower charges, while one other young man left the country and is believed to be fighting for ISIS.
According to the indictments and six guilty pleas, the group of high school and college students would gather to watch ISIS recruitment videos on social media. Members of the group made several attempts to travel to Turkey and then on to Syria in 2014 and 2015, prosecutors said, including one failed plan to drive across the Mexican border and fly from Mexico to Istanbul. Several who pled guilty said they were inspired by a desire to protect other Muslims from the murderous regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The multi-year FBI investigation into the circle of friends has rocked Minnesota’s Somali-American community, which is the largest of any state. Several of the young men who pled guilty will be testifying against Daud, Farah, and Omar. Another young man recorded his friends’ conversations for the FBI; his recordings will be played in court in the days to come.
But the defendants' families say the prosecution is a witch hunt and their children are innocent. None of the three men have ever been charged with a crime before, and none of them actually left the country to go to Syria.
"We are not terrorists and we never will be," Fadumo Hussein, Omar's mother, told reporters through a translator. "We love this country… it breaks my heart to see my son go through this trial. I cry day and night."
While dozens of alleged ISIS sympathizers have been arrested around the country, a large majority plead guilty. This case is only the third ISIS-related prosecution to go to trial, and it’s the largest. Two men in Brooklyn and Arizona were found guilty in March of attempting to provide support to the group and other offenses.
The Minneapolis trial began Monday with a surprise when one of the defendants, Mohamed Farah, asked for a new lawyer. He said his lawyer, Murad Mohammad, had not shown him the evidence against him, was unprepared, and had pressured him to plead guilty. In a court filing last week, Mohammad also asked to be removed, claiming that Farah's family hadn't paid him. But Judge Michael Davis denied the request, saying Farah had had more than a month to come to him with concerns about his attorney. He said he would not postpone the trial, and forced Mohammad to continue representing Farah.
While the other two defendants were wearing crisp grey and navy suits, Farah came into the courtroom in his orange prison jumpsuit. By the afternoon session when potential jurors were brought up, he was wearing a wrinkled button-up white shirt.
During jury selection, there were already hints of how contentious the case will be. Judge Davis quizzed 50 potential jurors about whether they thought they could be impartial in a terrorism case, and 10 said they could not, and were excused.
"When they first walked in, I already had the mindset of them being guilty," one woman told the judge, referring to the defendants. “To be honest, I feel uncomfortable even being in the same room with them,” another woman said later.
Sadik Warfa, a Somali community leader, said he hoped a diverse jury would hear the case. "It's very important that we don't have any bias—these men need a fair and impartial trial," he said. But almost all of the potential jurors called Monday were white, and the only two African-Americans called were excused. One was let go after he admitted, “I don’t really trust police.” The final jury will be chosen Tuesday.
In the back of the large, brightly lit courtroom, about 50 friends and family of the young defendants crowded onto the benches, the women wearing colorful hijabs. During breaks, several men prayed in the hallway. More supporters were sent to an overflow room where a video feed of the trial was broadcast.
“I want my son to receive justice,” Farhiyo Mohamed, Daud's mother, said. “I'm hoping that the jury, all the negative things they hear from the media from the outside, they don't pay attention to that.”
The trial is expected to go for two to three weeks and possibly as long as a month.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.