When the first group of “Minnesota men” were charged with conspiring to join ISIS in April 2015, it made headlines in page-one stories all over the country. Scott Shaen reported in the New York Times, for example, “6 Minnesotans held in plot to join ISIS.” In the Wall Street Journal Andrew Grossman shared a byline with two other reporters announcing “U.S. charges six Minnesota men with trying to join ISIS.” The charges were treated as a big and important story.
Coverage of the trial, however, has been left to the local media. Evidence that surfaced in pretrial proceedings should have heightened interest in the story, yet the national press has more or less disappeared.
The verdict affecting the three defendants on trial will make news, but the verdict is the least of it. Regardless of the fate of the three defendants on trial, the case raises serious national security concerns. Six of the defendants’ co-conspirators have pleaded guilty. One has gone missing. The one — Abdi Nur — was the subject of a good page-one story by Shane in March 2015: “From Minneapolis to ISIS: An American’s path to jihad.” The thumbnail photograph on the home page shows Nur in Syria holding an AK 47, a “Minnesota man” no more.
Nur’s 23-year-old sister, Ifrah, was called to testify by the prosecution yesterday morning. Nur appeared as a witness in the government’s case involuntarily, pursuant to subpoena. Although Nur is still distraught over the likely death of her “baby bro” (as her messages to him in Syria called him), and the government seeks to prevent others like her brother from decamping to ISIS in Syria, she testified only under legal compulsion. She spoke on the stand through her tears.
Abdi Nur disappeared to Syria in May 2014. Ifrah Nur testified that he became visibly more observant in the months preceding his disappearance. He became more focused on religion. He spent time at the Dar Al-Farooq Mosque in Bloomington. Nur’s family was happy that Abdi was observing Islam “in the right way.” Then it “took a wrong turn,” she said.
The Assistant United States Attorney examining Nur displayed the communication between brother and sister after his departure to Syria. They exchanged messages via Kik and Facebook. She begged him to return. She told him that the United States government would assist his return home if only he would make his way to a State Department office. “I’m not coming back,” Abdi Nur responded. “We’ll see each other in the afterlife,” he added. “I want the best death,” he explained. “I want jannah [heaven] for all of us.”
Ifrah Nur continued to plead with him: “Noo noo please don’t leave me.”
Nur told her: “You have to take care of hoyo [mother].”
Before Ifrah Nur took the stand yesterday morning, FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force Officer Joel Pajak finished his testimony. He reviewed previously undisclosed details of another “Minnesota man” who left for Syria in 2014. As the Star Tribune’s Stephen Montemayor reports: “Pajak said Nur’s nephew, Mohamed Roble, who is the same age, flew to Istanbul in October 2014 as part of a booked trip to China. He never returned. Roble was not previously named or charged in the case.”
Ifrah Nur’s testimony couldn’t have taken more than an hour. The rest of the day was devoted to a succession of FBI agents filling in the background to the attempted departure of defendants to Syria. They were impressive witnesses. I should return to their testimony in a subsequent report.
Every day in every way, the case against the “Minnesota men” illustrates the intersecting quandaries of immigration, Islam, and national security.