Things got interesting in court on Wednesday. Having seated the jurors at the end of the day on Tuesday, Judge Davis began the trial by reading the indictment and charging the jury on protocol. He then invited the parties to make their opening statements. Assistant United States Attorney Andrew Winter gave the opening statement on behalf of the government, previewing the evidence that the prosecutors will introduce to support their case.
The opening statement is to preview the evidence that the jury will hear during trial; it is not the occasion for argument. Winter summarized the case: “This is a case about a group of men who sought to travel to Syria to kill for ISIL.” Speaking for about an hour, Winter used slides and videos to illustrate his presentation. I found a few items of particular interest to stand out. They went by quickly and my notes notes are imperfect, but here is what I heard.
The three remaining defendants were part of the group to which Winter referred. They were inspired by other “Minnesota men” who had made it to Syria to join ISIS and take up the jihad. Let me add here that when it comes to contributing foreign fighters to ISIS, we’re number one. Minnesota leads the country in men who have attempted to leave the United States to join ISIS, or who have done so. That is according to the House Homeland Security report published in September 2015. MPR’s Mukhtar Ibrahim, Laura Yuen and Sasha Aslanian profile several of the “Minnesota men” in “Called to fight: Minnesota’s ISIS recruits.”
Abdi Nur was part of the group seeking to leave Minnesota to join ISIS. He left Minnesota in May 2014 and made it to Syria. His communications with defendants in Minnesota had not previously been disclosed to my knowledge.
Winter referred to Nur’s communications with defendant Guled Omar. According to a conversation recorded by a government informant (one of the group who began cooperating with the FBI in early 2015) with Omar, Nur urged Omar to kill 16 pilots in Minnesota who had opposed ISIS in Syria. Nur allegedly provided a list of the pilots to Omar. Omar declined to take up the instructions because “it could be easily tracked back.”
Winter highlighted the aspirations of defendant Guled Omar. If he made it to Syria via Mexico, Omar aspired to help ISIS fighters travel back from Syria through Mexico to the United States. “Imagine what they could do,” Omar was recorded as saying. “They could do crazy damage. I swear to god we have a big opportunity.” ISIS fighters would blend in with the crowd: “They already look Mexican.”
If they were intercepted in the United States, defendant Mohamed Farah dreamed of killing the agent who stopped them. Referring to the FBI, Farah asserted: “I’m going to kill the one [that threatens us]. Everybody has that fed.”
Defendant Abdirahman Daud was in contact with ISIS. He received a set of detailed instructions on the route to take to Syria via Mexico and Turkey. Winter flashed the instructions on the court monitor.
Shortage of funds is never a consideration in their plans. Money appears as needed to fund their planned travel. I will be keeping an eye out for money and Mexico.
Defense counsel made their opening statements after lunch. The government’s case features one former member of the group who turned government informant and was paid for his services, one Abdirahman Bashir. The government’s case also features the testimony of two of the group who have pleaded guilty. They all have deals with the government to secure their cooperation. Defense counsel attacked the credibility of the informant and the two men who have pleaded guilty.
This is standard stuff and it may or may not be effective. The best lawyer in the courtroom is Bruce Nestor, representing Daud.
Nestor stated that Daud is deeply religious. Daud is an observant Muslim. Nestor paid tribute to Islam as one of the great monotheistic religions, though ISIS may have gone off the rails with it. According to Nestor, the group of 30 or so Somalis of which Daud was a part constituted a sort of Syria study group. He implied that Daud had sought to join ISIS in Syria to contribute to the beneficent aspects of the caliphate ISIS has declared, “horrific as that may be” (or words to that effect). The group doesn’t prove he was a member of a conspiracy. Moreover, Daud was a talker, not a doer.
Nestor focused intensely on Bashir. The defense of entrapment is limited and difficult to establish. Nestor referred to Bashir’s efforts to “ensnare” Daud by planning the travel to Syria in early 2015 that led to Daud’s arrest in California. Bashir pushed forward otherwise “haphazard and fruitless plotting.” Contrary to the most serious charge against him, Daud did not conspire to commit murder in Syria. Daud’s mind “was a stew of conflicting desires and intents.”
I will omit mention of the statements offered by attorneys Murad Mohammad and Glenn Bruder on behalf of Mohamed Farah and Guled Omar, respectively. I am less interested in whether the defendants are ultimately convicted than in the evidence of the terror threat that is manifest in the government’s evidence. Star Tribune reporter Stephen Montemayor provides a coherent account of the opening statements here.
The government called its first three witness. When Judge Davis adjourned at the end of the day, Charles Lister had just begun to testify as an expert on ISIS. Lister is a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. He will take the stand again first thing this morning.