MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Jury selection started Monday in the federal trial for three Minnesota men accused of plotting to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State group. Prosecutors say they were part of a larger conspiracy in which several men from Minnesota's large Somali community met secretly and talked about ways to get to Syria and finance their trips. Some key information about the trial:
WHAT IS THIS ALL ABOUT?
Prosecutors say the three men — Abdirahman Yasin Daud, 22, Mohamed Abdihamid Farah, 22, and Guled Ali Omar, 21 — were part of a larger group of friends in Minnesota's Somali community who met several times from March 2014 to April 2015 to plan how they would travel to Syria to join the Islamic State group. The men allegedly helped each other get passports and money for travel, and talked about ways to contact the Islamic State group and make passage from Turkey to Syria.
All three have pleaded not guilty to multiple counts. The most serious is conspiracy to commit murder outside the United States, which carries the possibility of life in prison. The men are also charged with conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State group and attempting to provide such support.
Six other men who were part of the alleged plot have pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy to support a foreign terrorist organization. A tenth man charged in the case is at-large, believed to be in Syria, and others who were part of the group but have not been charged were successful in going overseas.
The FBI has said about a dozen people have left Minnesota to join militant groups fighting in Syria in recent years. Since 2007, more than 22 men have joined al-Shabab in Somalia.
WHY IT'S IMPORTANT
Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, has been tracking cases related to the Islamic State group. He said Minnesota's case is 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 basis. He said in other cases, people were reaching out to others online. Here, the contact has been person to person, or brother to brother, and involved "a cluster of individuals."
Young men from Minnesota's Somali community, the nation's largest, have been a target for terror recruiters. The men who have pleaded guilty said they were drawn in by YouTube videos and other radical propaganda, and believed it was their duty to protect fellow Muslims who were suffering at the hands of the Bashar Assad regime.
The issue of recruitment has been a priority for the Somali community and authorities. Minneapolis is one of three cities participating in a federal pilot program to counter terror recruitment. Separately, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, who's overseeing Minnesota's cases, created a program to assess terror defendants' risks and come up with plans to keep them from engaging in radical activities in the future.
Prosecutors estimate the trial could last roughly three weeks.
The government plans to call more than two dozen witnesses and introduce 340 exhibits. The evidence will include tape-recorded conversations about the plans, Islamic State group videos that the defendants watched, testimony from experts about beheadings, as well as bank, travel and telephone records of the defendants.
One witness expected to testify is Abdirahman Bashir, who was part of the conspiracy but became an informant for the FBI. Many of the conversations that have been cited in court documents were recorded by Bashir. Another man, Abdullahi Yusuf, is also expected to testify. Yusuf tried to go to Syria in May 2014 but was stopped at the airport. Bashir has not been charged in the case, and Yusuf is among those who have pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the government.
The parents of the defendants have claimed their sons are innocent, and some have taken issue with the government's use of an informant. In documents filed in advance of trial, defense attorneys questioned Yusuf's motives for cooperating, suggesting he could have changed his story to fit the government's narrative in hopes of receiving a lighter penalty. The defense is also expected to take issue with Bashir's past and the amount of money he's been paid by the FBI for his work.
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