It’s been nearly three months since FBI agents stormed Khaalid Abdulkadir’s home in south Minneapolis, arresting the 20-year-old on charges that he tweeted death threats against FBI agents and a federal judge.
His mother has scrubbed the living room’s hardwood floor repeatedly, trying to remove the black marks left by the concussion grenades. The scuff marks — and appointments with lawyers since — are constant reminders that her son is headed to trial, facing up to 15 years in prison, in a proceeding that begins on Tuesday.
With the two alleged tweets, posted in December and quickly deleted, Abdulkadir abruptly changed from a pre-nursing student who helped raise a dozen siblings and cousins into one of the 85 Americans charged with activities related to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
More than 20 years after they fled civil war in Somalia and started a new life in the Twin Cities, his parents now struggle to reconcile the two Khaalids: The kid who dreamed aloud in his 2015 high school graduation speech of becoming a doctor or a teacher some day, and the man authorities say tweeted jihad.
Fear and paranoia jockey for position with the family’s feelings of patriotism. They also maintain their son’s innocence — and, in some ways, theirs.
“We are not terrorists,” Abdulkadir’s mother, Dequa Warsame, said. “We are American people who have lived here a long time.”
‘I know [his] every move’
Those who grew up with Abdulkadir say they don’t recognize the young radical described by prosecutors.
Abdirahman Abdulkadir, 20, said his cousin could barely keep up with Islam’s most central prayers. Younger relatives recall trips to the Mall of America, where Khaalid worked at the Sea Life Aquarium. Aisha, his 6-year-old cousin, said he would give the young ones a $100 bill to split among them. The idea that Khaalid — who seemed more interested in his girlfriend and playing basketball — had time for a double life puzzled Abdirahman.
Who kept a better eye on Khaalid — his watchful parents or federal agents?
Warsame, a day-care teacher, uses a Facebook account under a different name to monitor her children’s posts. Their father, Adam Aded, a bus driver for Minneapolis Public Schools, said he has a firm command of his children’s whereabouts.
“I know my child’s every move, every hour where he is, how many text messages he sends every month,” Aded said.
So it came as a surprise when the FBI visited their home last year to ask about Khaalid’s desire to fly overseas, Aded said. He later explained to agents that his son didn’t even have a valid passport, but vowed to cooperate if there were any problems.
In June 2015, knowing his son was under FBI surveillance, Aded forbade Khaalid to fly with the family to his cousin’s high school graduation in San Diego because the trip might trigger suspicion. When Khaalid tried to go anyway, family members chased him down the street, taking his wallet and plane ticket.
“Either you like us or you hate us,” Aded said. “We are Americans, we are not going back.”
‘Kill them FEDS’
Federal authorities paint a different picture, describing a young man who sought advice from former Minnesotans who had traveled abroad to fight for ISIL and Al-Shabab.
By early 2015, they say, he had contacted Abdi Nur, who left Minnesota to fight for ISIL in 2014. He had also been in touch with Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan, aka “Miski,” who was arrested last year in Somalia after leaving the U.S. to fight for Al-Shabab in 2008.
“[B]rother I’m trying to make moves,” he allegedly said in a private Twitter message to Miski.
Agents wouldn’t enter the family’s home again until last December, when they arrested Khaalid in connection with what they say were threatening tweets just hours after he learned that a friend, Abdirizak Warsame, had become the 10th Twin Cities man accused of trying to join ISIL.
“#kill them FBI and [expletive] as judge,” one tweet partly read. “I’m kill them FEDS for take my brothers,” another read.
Twenty minutes after posting the tweets, prosecutors say, Khaalid deleted them. But an informant monitoring his account sent screenshots to prosecutors.
“Yeah bro it’s gone don’t worry,” Khaalid later allegedly wrote to a friend, according to court documents.
Similar case, different result
The same friend soon warned him: Don’t become the next Mahamed Said.
Said was another young Somali-American from Minneapolis who had fired off a series of tweets saying he would “whack that us attorney general” and massacre federal agents after a 10-month FBI investigation resulted in the arrest of six young men last April on charges of plotting to support ISIL.
Said’s lawyers, Chris Madel and Aaron Thom, negotiated a plea deal that reduced his charges to a misdemeanor.
Now on probation and living temporarily in a halfway house in South Dakota, Said says he can return his sights to his future: He wants to pursue a career in law one day.
“I could have been in the gutter right now,” he said.
Now Madel and Thom represent Abdulkadir, but his case has so far played out differently.
Of the dozen Twin Cities men accused of ISIL-related activities, Abdulkadir is the first to go to trial.
Among the government’s 900 active domestic terror-related cases, most are unlikely to cross the legal threshold for criminal charges, said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the George Washington University Program on Extremism.
But in Abdulkadir’s case, evidence that he had contacted Miski may have convinced prosecutors that his December tweets were more than idle chatter.
“Context matters,” Hughes said. “It muddies the water the way a normal threat online wouldn’t.”
Prosecutors also plan to cite a jail phone conversation in which Abdulkadir threatened to shoot someone last year as a warning to a man to stay away from his girlfriend. Months before his arrest, they say, he also stood outside a cafeteria window at the Minneapolis federal building and took cellphone photos of a U.S. marshal who had earlier asked to interview him.
Abdulkadir and his lawyers are “just hoping we get a fair jury, one that will look at the actual evidence instead of the hyperbole that some are shoveling,” Madel said.
His siblings and cousins, meanwhile, are planning to miss school for his trial.
For some, paranoia lingers.
“Everybody at school looks at me differently,” said Ridwan Abdulkadir, his 14-year-old sister. “They think my whole family is under watch right now.”
Lul Warsame, Abdulkadir’s aunt, said she now tells her children not to make friends at school, out of fear that authorities may try to use them as informants.
But on the eve of Abdulkadir’s trial, his parents cling to hope that he will emerge from the justice system of their adopted country.
“We’re asking everybody involved in this case … give Khaalid a chance. Give back his life,” Aded said.