Three Somali-American men on trial in Minneapolis, Minnesota, face the possibility of 15 years to life in prison for allegedly conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State group and commit murder outside the United States. But the trial also brings into sharp focus the radical group's global reach and concerns within the Somali-American community about judicial fairness and how that could affect collaboration with law enforcement.
Mohamed Abdihamid Farah and Abdurahman Yasin Daud, both in their early 20s, and Guled Ali Omar are among a group of Somali-American men the FBI tracked over a period of months starting in March 2014, when one member of the group aroused suspicion when he applied for an expedited passport to travel to Turkey, but was unable to answer basic questions about his planned trip.
Bob Fletcher, a former Ramsey County Sheriff in Minnesota and Director of the Center for Somali History Studies in Minneapolis, said the prosecution has a lot of evidence showing the men intended to leave the country to join the Islamic State group.
“They intend to show that these defendants were determined time and time again to join ISIL and to kill for ISIL. They are going to bring in evidence that shows that a portion of this group left in the spring of 2014; a portion of the group attempted to leave in November of 2014 and then again, two of these defendants were arrested in April 2015 in California for attempting to leave. That evidence will be powerful,” he said.
But that is not all. Fletcher said the prosecution wants to convey the brutality of IS to the court by showing the group's propaganda images and videos including beheadings, the burning of the Jordanian pilot in a cage and other gruesome killings.
Fletcher said prosecutors are using the graphic images to show that the defendants had been radicalized and then sought to travel.
“They are going to show those videos and say that even after they knew of the barbarity of ISIL they attempted to leave November of 2014 and April of 2015. They will have that to show they were joining a very barbaric organization, which will be a tough evidence.”
The government will also rely on recordings made by a confidential informant who was working for the FBI.
While the FBI maintains that the evidence showing the men sought to join Islamic State abroad is extensive, Fletcher anticipates the government might find it difficult to prove the more serious charge of intending to commit murder, which carries a possible life sentence.
He said the defense will encourage the jury to look for specific evidence and not get into the emotions surrounding the barbarity of ISIS.
"The best defense that they have is that these kids never really intended to commit murder when they go over there and they were mostly talk,” he said.
This undated file photo provided by the Washington County Sheriff's Office in Stillwater, Minn., shows Mohamed Abdihamid Farah, one of several Minnesota men facing trial for allegedly plotting to join the Islamic State group.
Concerns about all-white jury
Meanwhile, some in the Somali community expressed surprise over the composition of an all-white jury. Community leaders did not hold back that they would have liked to see jurors who are more racially or ethnically similar to the accused. The defendants are all black, migrants and Muslims.
“They (the jurors) are all Caucasians, we would hope to be included people that have the cultural knowledge of the religion, knowledge of the east African environment or culture," said Jibril Afyare, president of the Somali Citizens League in Minneapolis. "Unfortunately that is not the case. Everything is in their hand, we trust and hoping that a just and fair verdict will come out where everyone would be in favor of trying to be lenient for these men who really had lost their way out, and we need to think about how we can de-radicalize and help them to be involved again in the community.”
The criminal complaint that lays out the evidence against the men shows that the parents of at least several men were totally unaware of their plans to travel abroad. One individual had his new passport confiscated by his parents who were worried about what he was planning.
“These are young men that have been lured to a system that has nothing to do with Islam, I think the jury will look into that and make these young men learn their lessons and have their future ahead of them,” Afyare told the VOA Somali Service.
Undated file photo provided the Sherburne County, Minn., Sheriff’s Office shows Abdirahman Yasin Daud, one of several Minnesota men accused of conspiring to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State group.
Impact on community / law enforcement relations
It’s a concern shared by Bob Fletcher who said it could have impact on relations between the community and the law enforcement agencies if they are found guilty and given lengthy sentences.
“There needs to be a long enough sentence that is a deterrent for others from joining ISIS. But it can’t be so long that it damages our ability to get information from the community because our ability to fight terror hinges on information from parents and peers," he said. "We can’t just do it with old fashioned law enforcement, it has to come from the community deciding they don’t want their kids to go and become martyrs and they want them to have productive lives here in America.”
Apart from the three men who are standing trial, six others have pleaded guilty of the charges against them. They are Abdullahi Yusuf, Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman, Hanad Mustafe Muse, Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame, Hamza Ahmed and Adnan Abdirahman Farah, whose brother is standing trial.
Deqa Hussein, the mother of Abdirizak Warsame, who pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to provide material support to the ISIL militant group, told VOA Somali back in February that her son who was a peaceful man, a role model who used to advise the youth in the community to stay away from drugs.
She too is asking leniency.
“My son has one count, which is material support, that is 15 years. But it depends on the judge. I am a Muslim who was shaken by a lot of unexpected things. I rely on God. If my son told the truth, I believe we will not disappointed.”