In sentencing nine young Somali-Minnesotans on terror conspiracy charges this week, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis closed a chapter in the federal government’s long, extraordinary investigation of ISIL recruitment in Minnesota.
But the full story is far from over.
In nine hearings over three days before a courtroom packed with the families of the young men who sought to give their lives to ISIL, Davis repeatedly underlined a clear message: There is a terrorist cell in Minneapolis and it is still alive today.
Each day, Davis sought to extract acknowledgment from the young men that they were “terrorists,” and left no doubt as to his thoughts on whether they were simply misguided youths.
“Everyone talks about Brussels or Paris having cells,” Davis said one day, then, raising his voice: “We have a cell here in Minneapolis.”
Saying the Minnesota public had “danced around” the issue, Davis described the cell’s size as being between nine to 20, including those sentenced last week and others killed abroad.
Later in the week, he raised eyebrows in the courtroom by telling one defendant that he noted “six to 10” supporters who attended previous hearings and insisted that “some defendants gave them signals.”
“I know they’re out there,” Davis said. “The community knows they’re out there.”
Federal prosecutors seemed to share Davis’ conviction. In an unusual development on Wednesday, they asked that two defendants, Mohamed Farah and Abdirahman Daud, be returned to the courtroom after their hearings were finished. Prosecutors said both men flashed index fingers pointed upward as they faced the gallery on their way out, an apparent symbol of “tawhid” that symbolizes an Islamic concept of “oneness of God” but is also a popular symbol used by ISIL supporters.
Davis had created the nation’s first terrorism disengagement and deradicalization program earlier this year, contracting a German terrorism scholar to evaluate defendants before sentencing, assess their risk of recidivism and recommend any release programs that could provide an “off ramp” from radical thought or action.
Other defendants proposed various release programs, but Davis made clear that there was nothing suitable to impose as an official release program, let alone as an alternative to prison.
“You’re talking to the person that started things,” Davis told one attorney. “I know there’s nothing there. We don’t have anything in the U.S., we don’t have anything in the district of Minnesota and it’s questionable whether any programs around the world are working. That’s where we are at.”
Davis’ courtroom exchanges with defendants continued to detail how Minneapolis’ ISIL conspiracy stood out among the nation’s terror cases. One lesson, revealed because the Twin Cities group of defendants was so large, is that peer-to-peer recruiting can play a powerful role in the radicalization of young people. Defendant Zacharia Abdurahman referred to one of their colleagues who actually left for Syria and is presumed dead.
“When Abdi Nur left, that’s what changed the tides,” Abdurahman said. “I went from just being interested … to this is what I’ve got to do now.”
During Farah’s sentencing hearing, the judge made clear how much he thinks the community learned from the case.
“It’s on the record. There’s no denying of it,” Davis said. “Your own voice is on those tapes. Your voice here today is admitting to me what you have done. The litany of things that you did, the lies that you told should be published so there is no doubt about what is happening here today.”
The judge later explained his forcefulness — so direct that it surprised some attorneys — before sending Daud to prison: “We have to incapacitate this cell.”
Unfortunately the judge also said this during the trial, as we noted last week:
You can’t incapacitate the cell until you incapacitate the Koran…and the mosques who preach from it.