Affidavit: US man kept Syria travel plot secret

AP News
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Posted: Nov 26, 2014 10:16 PM

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — An 18-year-old Minnesota man accused of trying to travel to Syria to join fighters with the Islamic State group had left some clues on Facebook that authorities said hinted at radical ideals but was still able to hide weeks of planning from his parents, according to recently unsealed court documents.

Abdullahi Yusuf was released into the custody of his parents Wednesday after his attorney said Yusuf knew for six months he was being investigated but never fled. Prosecutors filed an immediate appeal, saying Yusuf should remain in custody because he has deceived his parents before.

Yusuf had no income when he obtained a passport, opened a checking account and paid for an airline ticket to Istanbul, Turkey, according to court documents. On at least two occasions, federal agents watched as he left his high school after his father had dropped him off, and took steps to put his alleged plan in motion.

Yusuf, who lives with his parents in the St. Paul suburb of Inver Grove Heights, was stopped by FBI agents at the Minneapolis airport in May while trying to leave the U.S., but wasn't arrested until Tuesday. He is charged with one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. Another man, Abdi Nur, 20, of Minneapolis, is also charged but believed to be outside the U.S.

Months before he began taking steps to travel, Yusuf communicated with another Minnesotan who is now believed to be fighting in Syria. Yusuf also posted items on his own Facebook page that suggested extremist views, according to the affidavit.

Yusuf's Facebook account shows his profile picture was a man with the head of a lion. The affidavit says Islamic extremists refer to themselves as lions — a reference to being a strong warrior for jihad.

A major goal of many groups fighting in Syria is to overthrow President Bashar Assad. In February of this year, Yusuf posted on his Facebook account: "Bashaar asad don't deserve to live," the affidavit said.

But Yusuf's attorney, Jean Brandl, said in court that many people are against the Assad regime. She also said Yusuf used the lion's head on his picture because he believed it was inappropriate for women and girls to look at his face.

She also said there is no evidence that Yusuf planned to travel beyond Turkey, and that he has had no contact with anyone who may be associated with the Islamic State group.

But the government's affidavit and Wednesday's court testimony outline efforts Yusuf took to keep his alleged plan secret.

Shortly after turning 18 in April, Yusuf applied for an expedited passport. He told a passport official he was traveling to Istanbul for vacation and provided school identification cards and a citizenship certificate. But when he became visibly nervous and couldn't provide details on his travel, the official alerted the FBI, which put Yusuf under surveillance.

On May 5, the FBI watched as Yusuf's father dropped him off at school. Yusuf didn't go inside, but instead walked to a nearby mosque. He then took public transportation to pick up his passport. That same day, Yusuf used his passport to open a checking account. On May 23, he made four different deposits totaling $1,500, and he used his debit card to buy an airline ticket online the next day.

On May 28, FBI agents watched again as Yusuf's father dropped him off at school. About an hour later, Yusuf walked to the mosque. He later emerged and got into a car, stopped to change clothes, and was dropped off at a light rail station. From there, Yusuf went to the airport, according to court documents.

He was stopped by FBI agents at the gate. Special Agent John Thomas wrote in an affidavit that when Yusuf was told agents thought he was planning to go to Syria to join a terrorist group, he said: "I've never committed a crime. I never committed no terrorist crimes that you're accusing me of."

Omar Jamal, chief executive of American Friends of Somalia, said he believes someone gave Yusuf direction and money for travel.

"This kid, and many like him, fall victim to indoctrination," Jamal said. "I have talked to this kid many times. He was very confused, he didn't know what he was doing, and the parents were kept in the dark."

Many parents of Minnesotans who traveled to join fighting in Syria or Somalia in recent years learned of their children's plans after it was too late. Minnesota is home to the largest population of Somalis in the U.S.

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