Trial To Begin For 3 Somali-Americans Accused Of Planning To Join ISIS

May 9, 2016
Originally published on May 9, 2016 6:30 pm
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Jury selection begins today in what is so far America's largest ISIS trial. Ten young men were initially charged in the case. One is believed to be in Syria. Six have pleaded guilty. The remaining three will appear in a federal court in Minneapolis today. They're accused, among other things, of planning to join ISIS in Syria.

The case is being so closely watched because it's expected to offer a rare account of radicalization in America from people who were radicalized. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston has been following these events. Good morning.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: And tell us more about that trial.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they're all high school friends from Minneapolis, Somali-Americans who are now in their early 20s. And the charges came out of a year-long investigation by the FBI into what they thought was a kind of jihadi pipeline funneling young men from Minneapolis-St. Paul to ISIS.

Now, as you said, six of the 10 people originally charged pleaded guilty. And while we don't know exactly what the prosecution has planned, we do know that at least some of those young men are expected to testify in this trial.

MONTAGNE: Well, beyond the fact that they were in their early 20s and we know they were radicalized, what else do you know about them?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the youngest of the defendants is Guled Omar. He's 21. And according to prosecutors, he's been trying to join terrorist groups overseas for years. They allege that he made plans to follow some of his friends to Somalia to fight with the al-Qaida branch there back in 2012, but he never actually went. And then the FBI stopped him in November 2014. And he was allegedly trying to board a flight that officials said would've taken him to ISIS.

Now, he's being charged, among other things, with providing material support to a terrorist organization. And what that means is he's essentially offering himself as a fighter, which is a common charge in many of these terrorism prosecutions. Then the next defendant is Abdirahman Daud. He's 22. The FBI arrested him in San Diego last year. And according to the criminal complaint, he'd driven to California with a bunch of his friends, and they all wanted, allegedly, to sneak across the Mexican border to take an international flight that would eventually take them to ISIS.

MONTAGNE: And what about those friends who came to California? What happened to them?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, one of them also planned to go to ISIS, and he changed his mind and allegedly turned himself in to the FBI before this road trip and became a confidential source. Another man in the car took a plea deal, and he could end up testifying.

And then another man, 22-year-old Mohamed Farah, he's the third man on trial starting today. He was in that California car, allegedly wanted to sneak across the border to join ISIS, you know, eventually get there. And what's amazing about this is that terrorism cases in the U.S. rarely involve this many people. And we usually don't hear testimony from members of the actual alleged conspiracy.

MONTAGNE: Well, finally, why do there seem to be so many young people from Minneapolis joining ISIS?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the numbers are relative. The FBI says about 200 Americans may have left the U.S. to go to Syria, and a sliver of that number are known to have joined ISIS. But if you compare that with European countries, there are 1,200 people who left France to join ISIS. Five-hundred Belgians are thought to have joined the group. In Denmark, the number is 250.

So given the size of the U.S, the problem in the U.S. of recruitment is a bit more manageable. You know, that said, Minneapolis-St. Paul was ground zero for terrorist recruiters even before ISIS existed. This has the largest...

MONTAGNE: Right.

TEMPLE-RASTON: ...Somali community in the U.S. And many people went to try and join al-Qaida's arm in Somalia years ago.

MONTAGNE: Right. Dina, thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.