Sentencing the “Minnesota men” (4)

This post continues “Sentencing the ‘Minnesota men'” (3). In these two posts I offer my observations and impressions of the nine sentencing hearings in the case of the Somali Minnesotans who have pleaded guilty to, or have been convicted of, conspiracy to support ISIS among other related charges. The nine men sought to leave Minnesota to wage jihad with ISIS in Syria. The Weekly Standard has just published my condensed account of the proceedings in the article “‘Minnesota men’ go to prison.” (I want to thank deputy managing editor Kelly Jane Torrance for her substantial editorial work on the article and to thank deputy editor Richard Starr for welcoming yet one more piece by me on the case — the fourth — in the magazine.) The hearings were intensely dramatic. The actual imposition of sentences may have been the least interesting part of the hearings.

• The investigation of this case extended over more than a year and reached from New York to California. FBI agents in Minneapolis ran the investigation, but they needed help from their colleagues on the coasts as the case played out. New York FBI agents stopped four of the defendants from traveling to Syria in November 2014 when they were intercepted at JFK International Airport after traveling from Minneapolis by bus. California FBI agents arrested two of the defendants in San Diego when they traveled from Minneapolis in April 2015 to buy what they thought were fake passports from “Miguel” (an undercover law enforcement officer).

• Two local FBI agents who ran the case were present in court for trial and sentencing. The defendants who had been intercepted by the FBI thanked the agents for stopping them and credited them with saving their lives.

• Speaking on their own behalf at the sentencing hearings, defendants were articulate and even eloquent. To state the obvious, the problem here is neither lack of education nor lack of opportunity. These persistent young men knew what they were doing and continued their efforts even when they knew they were under surveillance.

• Law enforcement authorities have sought to identify a recruiter. The sentencing hearings left matters where they were at trial. These young men appear to have recruited themselves by watching propaganda videos and talking them up to each other at work, in the mosque and on the road to San Diego. Two local mosques figured prominently at trial as a place where defendants met and plotted. There are 129 Islamic centers/societies/masjids/mosques/prayer spaces in Minnesota, from Rochester/Mankato to Duluth. There are 83 in Hennepin county alone. Three large mosques have been approved for construction in Pelican Rapids, Minnetonka, and Afton/Woodbury. There are several loose threads in this case.

• Judge Davis elicited statements from defendants that they defendants wanted to kill Shia Muslims and kuffir (nonbelievers). Judge Davis sought to test the defendants’ truthfulness with him during the hearings. When a defendant hesitated or quibbled in response to one of his questions, Judge Davis advised: “Don’t think I don’t know the answer to these questions.”

• I noted in part 3 that Judge Davis contrasted this case with a drug case. Here defendants used predictors of success (family, education and employment) to cover up their crimes. Judge Davis stated to defendant Hamza Ahmed: “You’ve used predictors of success to do harm.” Judge Davis emphasized the point: “If this was a normal case you’d be a great prospect for not getting a severe sentence.” Judge Davis wanted it understood that he could not rely on the usual factors to mitigate punishment. On a related note, the attorney for Hanad Musse likened Musse’s disavowal of Islamic radicalism to a personal struggle against alcoholism. “Rehabilitation is not linear,” the attorney conceded. Referring to the propaganda defendants watched, Judge Davis said: “It’s so seductive.” The attorney responded with an analogy to addiction: “To me it’s unfathomable how he got hooked.”

• For the purposes of sentencing Judge Davis had access to much information that remains nonpublic such as the pre-sentence investigation reports. Judge Davis adopted the factual statements in each presentence investigation report as his own. See Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 32. He also had the benefit of reports prepared by the court-appointed deradicalization expert Daniel Koehler with respect to the six men who pleaded guilty. Koehler’s reports are also nonpublic, but he appeared in court for two days of testimony about them in September.

• Judge Davis also received letters recommending leniency in sentencing that remain nonpublic. The court’s electronic filing system precludes public access to these letters. State rep.-elect Ilhan Omar filed a letter the text of which we posted here. Omar appears to have released the letter to the press for her own purposes. Omar counseled against lengthy sentences to punish and deter the serious charges at issue: “Such punitive measures not only lack efficacy, they inevitably create an environment in which extremism can flourish, aligning with the presupposition of terrorist recruitment[.]” I don’t think Judge Davis was impressed.

• After protesting their changed ways during the hearings, Mohamed Farah and Abdirahman Daud flashed the ISIS sign to their family and friends as they were led out of the courtroom. It was chilling. Judge Davis had sentenced each to imprisonment for 30 years, the second most severe sentence he handed out. The prosecutors asked Judge Davis to reconvene the hearing in each case so that they could note the conduct for the record. I’m embedding Lou Raguse’s KARE11 report below.

• In his sentences Judge Davis differentiated among those who pled guilty without cooperation, those who pled guilty and cooperated with the government and those who were found guilty at trial. Judge Davis rewarded the cooperating defendants with lenient sentences—in one case, time served, in the other case, 30 months—and those who didn’t cooperate but pleaded guilty with sentences of 10 to 15 years. He gave two of the men found guilty at trial, Daud and the older Farah, 30 years. Guled Omar, who testified at trial and baldly lied to the jury about his exploits, received 35 years.

• The prosecutors who tried this case did an excellent job representing the United States at the sentencing hearings. They are John Docherty, Andrew Winter and Julie Allyn. Hats off to them.

• I have known Judge Davis professionally for a long time. I never had any doubt that he was the right man to preside over this case, but my respect and admiration increased throughout. In one of the hearings on Wednesday, toward the conclusion of the proceedings, Judge Davis spoke warmly of the various immigrant groups that have contributed to Minnesota over the years. He itemized Germans, Russians, Hmong and Somalis. He dryly added: “My people came in chains.” One could infer why he remains manifestly unintimidated by, or subservient to, the forces of political correctness that otherwise inhibit discussion of the issues implicit in this case.

• Judge Davis ardently sought to convey the message that this case represents a grave threat to be acknowledged, owned up to and dealt with. Neither the case nor the threat is fabricated or mythical. Yet when I left the courthouse at the conclusion of the hearings on Wednesday afternoon, the usual demonstration protesting entrapment and demanding the freedom of the defendants was in progress. The defendants are hard cases, but their supporters are incorrigible.

Standing at the intersection of immigration, Islam and terrorism, this is an important case. There is much more that could and should be said about it. I nevertheless want to leave it here for now. If you are still reading, thank you for joining me.

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