On Friday one of the prosecution’s three key witnesses took the stand at the trial of the three “Minnesota men” contesting the charges that they conspired to provide material support to ISIS. Abdullahi Yusuf is one of six “Minnesota men” who have pleaded guilty to the conspiracy (I’m using his mug shot for the thumbnail on the home page). Testifying under a cooperation agreement with the government, Yusuf provided a compelling look at the conspiracy from the inside.
Yusuf’s testimony implicated all three defendants. It also identified defendant Guled Ali Omar as the elected “emir” or leader of the group that sought to travel from the Twin Cities to Syria to join ISIS.
The courtroom is full of family, friends and supporters of the defendants. Security is visible and tight, especially in the atrium of the courthouse. Several armed DHS officers are present at all times with dogs.
On Thursday, Omar’s brother Khadar entered the courthouse with a six-inch scissors. Having previously been observed photographing the elevators and misleading security officers about it, Khadar Omar was barred from the courthouse on Friday for the duration of the trial (order below via Star Tribune reporter Stephen Montemayor’s Twitter feed).
Khadar Ali Omar barred from federal court building after trying to bring in scissors, taking pics of elevators pic.twitter.com/xggnd6E0hG
— Stephen Montemayor (@smontemayor) May 13, 2016
Yusuf’s mother was present for his testimony. When one of the Somali supporters of defendants said something to her about Yusuf, she audibly erupted and was removed from the courtroom by security officers. “Up and out,” Judge Davis ordered her. Yusuf asked for a break. During the break, the cause of the disturbance was ascertained and reported to Judge Davis. Judge Davis apologized to Yusuf’s mother as well as to another Somali who had been removed. The person who upset Mrs. Yusuf was thrown out. Judge Davis referred to Omar’s brother and said he could come back too. Who said what to whom and what happened remain unclear to me.
Yusuf was a high school senior at the time he joined with defendants to travel to Syria. He attempted to depart for Syria in May 2014 within days of the graduation of his high school classmates from Heritage Academy (an all Somali charter school) in Minneapolis.
Yusuf is extremely well spoken. He speaks perfect English with a good vocabulary. His opportunities to succeed in conventional pursuits in the United States would have been (and may still be) boundless. Listening to him testify, I thought of the Shakespearian phrase “expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” I would change that up to make it “expense of spirit in a shame of waste.”
The Dar Al-Farooq Mosque near Heritage in southeast Minneapolis (“Dar Al-Farooq Como”) and the Dar Al-Farooq Youth and Family Center in Bloomington figured prominently in Yusuf’s testimony. The “Minnesota men” met at these places and convened in the mosque to talk and to plan.
Yusuf had no money. Yusuf purchased a ticket to travel from Minneapolis to Istanbul on Aeroflot. He funded the purchase with funds provided by Yusuf Jama, another member of the group who is now believed to have been killed in an airstrike during the battle of Kobane in Syria. Defendant Mohamed Farah drove him to a stop on the light rail to the airport on Hiawatha. Where was Jama getting the money?
Unbeknownst to him, Yusuf was under surveillance at the time. The prosecution introduced two surveillance photos of Yusuf boarding the train to the airport.
Yusuf made it to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport but was intercepted at the gate by FBI Special Agent John Thomas before departure. Thomas asked him about the purpose of his intended travel. Yusuf lied about it. When Thomas said he knew better, Yusuf complained that he was being profiled because he is Somali/Muslim. They really have that protocol nailed.
Yusuf took a taxi home from the airport. He was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury. I doubt he was any more truthful with the grand jury than he was with Special Agent Thomas.
Yusuf’s travel was coordinated with that of another member of the group, Abdi Nur. Nur departed the Twin Cities the following day and made it to Syria where he is believed to be fighting with ISIS.
The group including Yusuf and defendants communicated in part via the secure Surespot encrypted chat messenger. Yusuf testified that he deleted his Surespot account after his encounter with law enforcement at the airport. He avoided his friends but tweeted “the weather is hot” to let them know he was still around courtesy of law enforcement.
At the outset of his testimony, Yusuf acknowledged his false statements to law enforcement when he began to cooperate in January 2015. He said he sought to protect his “former friends,” as he described them. “I knew there would be blowback from the community,” he added. There is a decided Mafia flavor to the situation.
Yusuf returned to life at home in Inver Grove Heights, just south of St. Paul. He reconnected with defendants Daud and Omar, who were communicating with Nur via Snapchat. Daud showed him photos of Nur in Syria that had been taken and uploaded that day.
In September 2014, Yusuf met members of the group including the three defendants at Dar Al-Farooq Como. His attorney (who was also present in court yesterday) advised him by text message to be ready to be arrested. Daud and Farah advised him to hightail it; Omar advised him to stay. He started plotting to leave with defendants Daud and Farah. They were going to leave for Syria together via Mexico, South America or Canada.
Daud told him that the West is the enemy. Daud asked him how could he fool himself into thinking he could stay?
For a fuller account of Yusuf’s testimony, see Stephen Montemayor’s Star Tribune article or Casey Tolan’s Fusion piece. Montemayor’s Twitter feed is extremely helpful if you’re trying to keep up; he is indefatigable.
MPR’s Mukhtar Ibrahim and Laura Yuen have an excellent running trial summary that is posted here. Mukhtar speaks Somali and the MPR account of Friday’s doings purports to sort out what happened during the afternoon incident involving Yusuf’s mother and Omar’s brother. Out in Minnesota briefly on the Prince beat, Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times filed a report by telephone on the opening of the trial on Wednesday.