I attended the nine sentencing hearings in the ISIS conspiracy case brought in April 2015 against the “Minnesota men” (as the Somali Minnesotans are usually described in the headlines). Six of the defendants pleaded guilty; two of the six cooperated with the government by assisting the investigation and testifying against the three who contested the charges and went to trial this past May. On June 3 a Minnesota jury returned guilty verdicts against the three who went to trial. Judge Michael Davis presided over the case and scheduled the sentencing of all nine men at individual hearings held Monday through Wednesday this week. Judge Davis conducted the sentencing hearings in an unusual fashion. They were intensely dramatic. The actual imposition of sentences may have been the least interesting part of the hearings. I will offer my observations and impressions over a couple of these columns, for which I will borrow the format that Jay Nordlinger uses in his Impromptus column at NRO.
• The courtroom was packed over the three days of the hearings. On the last day of the sentencings, devoted to the three men who had gone to trial, one row of spectators was full of seven or eight men and women who looked vaguely familiar. It took me a while to place them. It finally came to me. They were members of the jury who had convicted the three defendants at trial. They wanted to see the outcome of their jury service with their own eyes. They obviously cared and it reminded me that we owe them a debt of gratitude.
• Friends and family of each of the nine defendants rotated in and out of each of the nine hearings. Dressed in native Somali garb, they filled two rows in the main courtroom and more in an overflow courtroom. Friends and family filled the atrium of the courthouse at the conclusion of each day. But for the uniformed law enforcement officers, it looked like a third-world country.
• Having taken the guilty pleas and presided over the convictions, Judge Davis had a message that he sought to convey in each of the sentencing hearings. With variations among the hearings, it went something like this: We had a jihadi terrorist cell in Minneapolis. This is a ‘Fake it till you make it’ conspiracy. I’ve had all the cases, seen all the lies, all the deceptions that this conspiracy, this cell, has put forth. Lies, lies lies. Deceptions, deceptions, deceptions. It’s out of the playbook of ISIL. ISIL makes no bones about it; they publish what they’re doing, and we see that a cancerous sore developed here in our community.
• The convicted defendants are all in their early 20’s. They are articulate and resourceful young men. They had virtually limitless educational and employment opportunities in the Twin Cities. The pressure on Judge Davis not to lock them up and throw away the key must be intense, if not excruciating. Watching the men tearfully plead for mercy in front of their sobbing families was an emotional experience.
• Each of the nine defendants asserted that he went off the rails watching ISIS propaganda videos and/or listening to Anwar al-Awlaki’s sermons. They burned to fight and die as martyrs for ISIS. They were intoxicated by Islam. Although they now renounce their commitment to ISIS, they remain devoted to Islam. Where is the line between sobriety and intoxication when sobriety itself can predispose one to intoxication? The role of local mosques and imams remains opaque to me.
• Judge Davis played a horrendous ISIS propaganda video or excerpt at each of the hearings. The defendants had watched hours of the videos; he didn’t play the videos for their benefit. He played them to demonstrate to the community the bloodthirsty nature of the defendants’ aspirations. Judge Davis referred to the videos’ exhibition of “slaughter of human beings in the name of religion, a jihadi religion.”
• Judge Davis described his travels around the world in search of a “deradicalization” program that offered the hope of rehabilitation in lieu of or in addition to incarceration. “We don’t have anything and it’s questionable whether any of the programs around the world are working…I can’t make a mistake.”
• Referring to the defendants’ employment and educational opportunities, Judge Davis repeatedly contrasted this terrorism case with a drug case. “What you’ve done is you turned us on our head. You used what we use for predictors of success in order to do harm.”
To be continued.