Three Minnesota men accused of plotting to go to Syria to join the Islamic State group were convicted Friday of conspiracy to commit murder overseas — a charge that carries a possible sentence of life in prison.
The defendants — Guled Ali Omar, 21; Abdirahman Yasin Daud, 22; and Mohamed Abdihamid Farah, 22 — showed little emotion as the three-week trial came to a close. Several people sitting in seats reserved for family broke down in tears; others left the courtroom in disbelief.
U.S. District Judge Michael Davis didn't immediately set a sentencing date, saying he wanted to review the case and hear directly from the three men.
In addition to the most serious murder-conspiracy charge, the defendants faced multiple other counts, including plotting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and attempting to provide such support.
"Can I write to you?" Omar quietly asked the judge.
"Yes sir, you can write to me anytime," Davis responded. Looking at Farah, he said: "And this time, I don't want you to hold anything back."
Young men from Minnesota's Somali community, the nation's largest, have been a target for terror recruiters.
Prosecutors have said Omar, Daud and Farah were part of a group of friends in the community who inspired and recruited each other to join the Islamic State group. In total, 10 young men accused in the conspiracy; six of those have pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy to support a foreign terrorist organization. A seventh, 22-year-old Abdi Nur, is at large, believed to be in Syria.
Others who were part of the group but have not been charged were successful in going overseas.
"These were not wayward kids who just got caught up in a fantasy," U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said at a press conference Friday, adding the evidence presented before the federal jury made clear the men were not misled by friends or tricked into becoming terrorists.
"They made a deeply personal and deliberate decision back in 2014," he said. "They wanted to fight for a brutal terrorist organization, kill innocent people and destroy their own families in the process."
Farah's attorney, Murah Mohammed, said his client never was offered the same plea bargain as the ones given to other defendants that took the murder charge off the table.
"I really thought there was a tenuous connection between what my client allegedly did and the conspiracy to commit murder charge," he said.
Relatives and supporters held an impromptu news conference on the plaza outside the courthouse after the verdicts. The Star Tribune reported that some cried and others were silent; protesters held up signs reading "Stop FBI Entrapment" and "Stop Targeting Somalis."
Prosecutors built their case largely on recordings made by a friend of the men who became a paid informant. Testimony at trial showed he was paid roughly $119,000.
Defense attorneys argued that comments on the recordings were youthful bluster. Family and friends have protested what they call entrapment, and said most of the defendants were in their teens when they were caught up in the Islamic State's social media recruitment campaign.
The case was the third Islamic State-related case to go to trial nationwide, and is unique because of the sheer number of people who were connected to each other on a personal level. In other cases, most recruitment has been done online.
The FBI has said roughly a dozen young men and women left Minnesota to join militants in Syria in recent years. And since 2007, more than 22 men have joined al-Shabab in Somalia.