Domestic Terrorism

As the First Multi-Defendant ISIL Trial Ends, Others Begin

By Nora Ellingsen
Thursday, June 9, 2016, 10:11 AM

The first multi-defendant ISIL-related trial ended on June 3 when three young men from Minneapolis’ Somali community—Guled Ali Omar, Abdurahman Yasin Daud, and Mohamed Abdihamid Farah—were found guilty on charges of conspiring to provide material support to ISIL and to commit murder abroad on its behalf. Seven others were initially charged, but six had pled guilty before the trial began. The last, Abdi Nur, was charged in absentia; in May 2014, he successfully reached Syria to join the Islamic State as a fighter.

Between May 2014 and April 2015, the three Minnesotans and their co-conspirators made multiple attempts to travel to Syria and join the Islamic State. For 10 months, the FBI investigated this group of young men, using both undercover agents and sources to track and, in most cases, successfully thwart their efforts at leaving the country. Only Nur, the first of the group to leave in May 2014, made it out of the country and he joined the Islamic State in Syria by the following month. According to the criminal complaint, he remained in contact with the group, in part by using Kik, a Canadian messaging application that doesn’t maintain records of user conversations, and advised them and other potential recruits with their travel plans and methods of communication. Abdullahi Yusuf, another co-conspirator who planned to leave at the same time as Nur, was stopped by the FBI at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport, where federal agents interrogated him after he had passed security but had yet to board his flight. During the interview, Yusuf told law enforcement employees that he intended to travel to Istanbul for a vacation despite neither having made any reservations nor knowing anyone in Turkey. His parents also told agents that he had planned his travel, obtained a passport, and purchased his ticket to Turkey without telling them.

Also in May, Farah applied for a passport, stating he wanted to travel to China. However, when his parents found his passport in the mail they confiscated it, worried he would disappear and they would, “not know where he went.”

During the same timeframe, Omar withdrew $5,000 in cash from his federal college financial aid, planning to drive to California before leaving the country from the west coast. He got as far as packing his bags into the trunk of his car before his family confronted him and convinced him to abandon his plan.

Four months later, in November 2014, Omar, Daud, and Farah attempted another getaway. Omar planned to fly from Minneapolis to San Diego before traveling to Syria. Daud and Farah, on the other hand, took a Greyhound bus from Minneapolis to New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport with tickets to Bulgaria and Greece via Turkey. Unfortunately for all three men, the FBI had been notified of their ticket purchases and showed up at both airports to prevent them from travelling. Although phone records showed contact between the men who had purchased their bus tickets within 16 hours of each other, all three claimed they didn’t know the others and were traveling alone for vacations.

Most people, having realized their plans to join ISIL were dashed, would have given up at this point. However, in a testament to their perseverance, Omar, Daud and Farah planned another escape. According to the complaint, in February 2015, a FBI source reported that the three men were discussing another plan to leave the United States for Syria. Recalling the flaws in their prior plan, the men discussed tactics to conceal the fact that they were leaving the country for good such as booking round-trip tickets and hotel rooms. They also sought avenues through which they could obtain false passports to avoid detection. At this point, the FBI’s source convinced them that he had a contact in San Diego who could produce the necessary documents for them. Unbeknownst to the would-be ISIL fighters, the FBI’s source had delivered them to an undercover law enforcement officer. All three men were immediately arrested on April 19 after Daud and Farah (Omar had decided to delay his travel to heighten his chances of successfully leaving the country) attempted to purchase these documents after driving to California from Minneapolis.

While this instance represents the first multi-defendant ISIL-related case, similar cases have been popping up across the country. The federal district court in the Eastern District of Virginia leveled a similar indictment against Mahmoud Amin Mohamed Elhassan on May 26 while the federal district court in the Southern District of New York sentenced Minh Quang Pham the next day. Elhassan, like the men in Minnesota, not only encouraged at least one friend to join the Islamic State but had made similar plans to join the terrorist organization in Syria, only to be ensnared by another undercover FBI employee. Pham’s story is more colorful. According to a Department of Justice press release, the 33-year old Pham has been sentenced to 40 years in prison after pleading guilty to providing material support to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), conspiring to receive military training from AQAP, and possessing and using a machine gun in furtherance of crimes of violence.

According to the press release and the indictment, Pham, a London resident, originally travelled to Yemen in December 2010. During the next year, Pham became closely acquainted with AQAP’s top leadership, regularly brushing shoulders with men on the top of the FBI's Most Wanted list. Anwar al Awlaki trained Pham personally before asking him to return to London as a recruiter for the organization. Pham also put his degrees in graphic design and animation to good use by assisting Samir Khan with AQAP’s hugely successful Inspire magazine. Prior to his departure for London, Pham approached al Awlaki about conducting a suicide attack in London upon his return. His mentor was a fan of the idea and taught Pham how to create an explosive device. The two men decided Pham would conduct the attack at London’s Heathrow International Airport at a gate when a flight from the United States or Israel had arrived. 

When Pham flew into Heathrow in July 2011, he was immediately detained by United Kingdom authorities. He was arrested in the United Kingdom in June 2012 pursuant to a provisional arrest warrant obtained by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York, which then requested his extradition. Pham was extradited to the U.S. in February 2015 and pled guilty to the aforementioned charges on January 8th. In his mid-twenties when he traveled to Yemen, Pham, a non-citizen, will likely be deported upon the completion of his sentence.