Attorneys for four Minnesota men accused of trying to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State group questioned the government’s use of a paid informant, and argued Thursday that the case against their clients is slim.
But U.S. Magistrate Judge Becky Thorson found there was probable cause to believe a crime was committed, and ordered the four men to remain in custody while the case proceeds.
They are among six men of Somali descent who were charged over the weekend with conspiracy to support a foreign terrorist organization and with attempting to support a foreign terrorist organization. Authorities allege some of the men made repeated attempts to get to Syria, and had developed a plot to get fake passports and travel overseas through Mexico.
According to an FBI affidavit, the government’s months-long investigation was aided by recordings made by a man who once planned to travel to Syria himself, but then decided to cooperate.
Thursday’s hearing was for Guled Omar, 20; Adnan Abdihamid Farah, 19; Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman, 19; and Hanad Mustafe Musse, 19. Two other men, Mohamed Abdihamid Farah, 21, and Abdurahman Daud, 21, faced hearings in San Diego, where they were arrested.
In ordering the four men detained, Thorson said she was looking at the weight of the evidence and other factors. Her ruling prompted one community member in the courtroom to shout: “You cannot weight anything but evidence, ma’am. We are the community! You should ask us!” He was led from the courtroom.
The hearing was tense for Somali community members. Afterward, Imam Hassan Mohamud said the community is angry, and some blame the informant. He criticized a Department of Justice pilot program designed to stop recruiting for terror groups before it starts, saying it will cause division.
“Some members of the community are looking other members of the community (as) spying to each other and sending them, their kids, to jail,” Mohamud said. “That’s why they are all angry. These four, all of them, are innocent until proven guilty.”
The U.S. attorney’s office said the pilot program is an outreach effort that “is and always has been completely separate from the investigative and prosecutorial responsibilities of this office.”
In court, defense attorneys questioned FBI Special Agent Harry Samit about the government’s payments to the informant. Musse’s attorney, Andy Birrell, asked whether his compensation was related to the number of people charged.
Defense attorneys also questioned how the FBI could take the informant’s word when he previously lied about his own involvement. They also asked why only some of his conversations were recorded, and whether it was the informant’s idea to pursue fake passports to get to Syria.
Samit testified the informant was paid nearly $13,000 for expenses and “services” and the amount wasn’t related to the number of people charged. Samit said the informant was being asked to gather evidence against people involved in “the most violent terrorist group in the world.”
“He’s exposing himself to a certain element of danger,” Samit said.
Samit also said the investigation was broader than just the informant’s evidence, and agents verified some details through their own surveillance.
As for why not all conversations were recorded, Samit said some early conversations happened before the informant was given recording equipment. He also said some conversations weren’t recorded because of equipment failure or poor sound quality.
The fake passports were initially Abdurahman’s idea, Samit testified, but when that fell through, the FBI suggested the informant come up with his own way to get fake passports.
When Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty asked Samit how the defendants responded to that idea, Samit said: “Very enthusiastically.”
Monday’s announcement of charges threw Minnesota’s Somali community, the largest in the U.S., into familiar turmoil. Since 2007, more than 22 young Somali men have traveled from Minnesota to Somalia to join the militant group al-Shabab. Authorities have also said a handful of Minnesota residents have traveled to Syria to fight with militants in the past year.
About 200 people from the Somali community packed the courtroom Thursday, plus an overflow room and spilled into the hallway.
As the hearing began, Docherty told the court that several attempts had been made to contact the informant or members of his family, and there had been “ugly behavior” on social media. Docherty warned that such activities could lead to prosecution.
Omar Jamal, a longtime activist, said the community has a hard time accepting that a Somali informant was involved, but he said local Somalis shouldn’t create an adversarial situation.
He said it was good the government stopped young men from potentially joining a terrorist group, then added: “but that doesn’t mean we can’t ask the government questions.”
Samit testified that the informant has been relocated at FBI expense, but isn’t in custody or under constant watch. He also said the government has made no promises that the informant would not be prosecuted in the future.