By KAREN SCHRAUFNAGEL
The local capitalist media dubbed it, “Minnesota’s Terror Trial.” Guled Ali Omar, Mohamed Abdihamid Farah, and Abdirahman Yasin Daud were allegedly part of a massive plot to travel to Syria in order to join ISIS (“ISIL”). The “conspiracy” was said to involve at least 10 young Somali men, all residents of the Twin Cities. One of these men, Abdi Nur, was charged in absentia, having made it to Syria in late May of 2014. His presence loomed large over Judge Michael Davis’ courtroom in downtown Minneapolis.
Intending to join a “designated foreign terrorist organization” is considered “providing material support” and carries a possible 15-year jail sentence. An even more serious charge, conspiracy to murder outside the United States, was later added, requiring the prosecution to prove the young men actually intended to kill for ISIL. This charge carries a possible life sentence.
The arrests started in February 2015 and continued throughout the year. All the young men have been in custody since being arrested. Six of the nine in jail succumbed to the enormous pressure that the threat of life in prison exerts and pleaded guilty to lesser charges before the trial started.
To those who know them, and those who are familiar with the workings of this country’s injustice system, it is clear that these young men were entrapped. At well-attended weekly support rallies throughout the trial, family and community members joined social justice activists in denouncing this baseless prosecution.
Omar, Farah, and Daud are the most recent victims of the U.S. War on Terror, victims of a capitalist media bent on sensationalist demonization, victims of the insidious Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, victims of a system riddled with bias, and victims of U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger’s political ambitions. They are victims who never hurt a soul, who have never been in trouble with the law before, and who might spend the rest of their lives in jail.
The trial in the case of United States versus Farah, Daud and Omar lasted four weeks (from the first day of jury selection on May 9, to the rendering of the verdict on June 3) and garnered substantial national and international attention as the largest “ISIL related” prosecution to go to trial. Much of the attention was highly sensationalized by the profit-driven media, while many of those reporting were not even present for the trial itself.
Most of our readers will know by now that the defendants were found guilty on virtually all of the 10 counts charged. They were found guilty of conspiracy to murder outside the United States, which carries a possible life sentence. There was a single “not guilty” verdict—on the charge of perjury against Daud. Sentencing will likely occur in July, although no date has been set as we go to press.
“Mainstream” media consumers cannot be faulted for only knowing the government’s side of the story. The media did report that the jury was “all white” but failed to mention that jurors were largely drawn from outside the Twin Cities and were middle aged, with virtually no travel outside the United States and limited experience with people from other races, cultures, or ethnicities.
The entire jury pool of 101 people had only three Blacks and only one “age” peer of the defendants. None of them made it onto the jury itself.
It is also worth noting that the so-called “justice” system requires jurors who are almost entirely uninformed about the issues of the day. This is supposed to create “blank slates” who will render verdicts based solely on the evidence presented in the courtroom and the law as explained to them by the judge. But the charges in this case were entirely politically motivated. The young men were charged for caring about the plight of their fellow Muslims on the other side of the globe and discussing what could be done.
A jury of their peers would not be uninformed and disconnected but deeply engaged, political people. The right to be tried by a jury of your peers simply did not apply in this case.
What did the prosecution write on these “blank slates”? They presented an expert who was paid $415 an hour (probably more than $15,000 for close to 40 hours of work including testimony at trial) to teach the jury about Syria and religious extremist groups, especially ISIL. Interestingly, after the prosecution questioned this expert for more than a day and a half, the second defense lawyer had his questioning interrupted by the judge who said: “This witness has been on the stand for a long time. This is all just historical background. Let’s wrap this up rather quickly.”
When the defense did finish up quite quickly, mostly inserting that the conflict is complicated, that many from the West who wanted to fight Assad and provide humanitarian assistance to Muslim victims would be drawn in by ISIL’s slick marketing, that he was neither fluent in Arabic or an expert on Islam, the judge interposed again asking the expert his own questions—about what happened in Kobane, about the seeming failure of the U.S. vetting of opposition groups, etc.
The prosecution’s goal throughout was to smear the defendants by supposed association. From their opening argument power point (every slide on a black “ISIL” flag backdrop), to an abundance of “exhibits” creating the impression of a thorough investigation but actually proving nothing, to numerous shocking ISIL videos depicting gruesome killings of their captured enemies, the prosecution succeeded in insinuating that defendants halfway around the world are somehow responsible for ISIL’s behavior.
A manager from Minnesota Pro Paintball testified because the prosecution alleged the young men played paintball several times as “training” to prepare for their mission. The defense could only poke holes after the fact, which they repeatedly did.
The star witnesses for the prosecution were, of course, the two cooperating defendants and especially the paid informant / collaborator. All three had a history of lying under oath (to grand juries and prosecutors even after they were supposedly cooperating) and seemed clearly to have altered their stories in the service of what the prosecution needed to make their specific case against these defendants. Testimony that seemed well-rehearsed and polished on direct examination seemed to crumble under the weight of defense questioning.
Abdirahman Bashir went from being the most obvious ISIL recruit to the most effective FBI collaborator. It was Bashir who had four cousins fighting in Syria. He was the one with all the contacts. He says he had a change of heart when his cousins died in Syria, but his true conversion came when he was hired on by the FBI. In December 2014 he was unemployed. His prior best job paid him $12 an hour. Early in January 2015 he officially began to work for the government. They paid him $4000 in cash every month. They bought him a car, hotel rooms, meals, and paid assorted other expenses for a total of over $119,000 in compensation. It was the best job he could ever hope to have; he now hopes for a career in law enforcement.
Bashir taped conversations with his former friends. He controlled the “on/off” switch on the recording device. He provided the translation (the conversation is often inaudible and frequently in Somali, with occasional words or phrases in Arabic) and transcription. The product of his efforts is the hours and hours of audio “evidence,” selected excerpts of which were played in court.
Bashir and his “colleagues” at the FBI created a plot to purchase fake passports, facilitating travel that would generally be impossible. When obstacles appeared, Bashir and the FBI overcame them. When defendants appeared unwilling, Bashir bullied them. Together this all amounts to entrapment.
The two cooperating defendants were the “bookends” on the trial. Cooperators must “provide substantial assistance” to the prosecution if they hope to have their potential sentences (held over their heads throughout) reduced by the judge. The most important role they played was enabling the prosecution to bring numerous, horrific ISIL videos into evidence.
By testifying that they watched and discussed these videos with the defendants, extremely prejudicial evidence was admitted over repeated defense objections. The impact of these videos cannot be overstated. And the impact is irreversible.
The defense thoroughly impeached these witnesses, showing them to be self-interested liars. But the jury saw the videos.
In the end it didn’t matter that none of these young men committed the violent acts depicted in video after video. It didn’t matter that they never committed any violent acts at all. It didn’t even matter whether or not they had actually seen the videos and how they actually felt about their content. It isn’t even guilt by association. It is guilt by fear and innuendo. And it might be enough to send these young men to prison for the rest of their lives.
Photo credit: Socialist Action. (From left to right) Ayan Farah (mother of Mohamed Farah), Farhiyo Mohamed (mother of Abdirahman Daud), Fadumo Hussein (mother of Guled Omar), and Sadik Warfa of Global Somali Diaspora, addressing the press one day after court.