MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A Minnesota man on trial for plotting to go to Syria to join the Islamic State group testified Thursday that he thought about leaving the United States because he could feel the government closing in, but said he had no real plan and believed a scheme to get fake passports for the journey was a bad idea.
Guled Ali Omar, 21, is one of three men on trial in U.S. District Court in Minnesota on multiple counts. The most serious is conspiracy to commit murder outside the United States, which carries the possibility of life in prison. He is the only defendant to testify.
Prosecutors have said the men were part of a larger group of friends in Minnesota's Somali community who recruited and inspired each other to go to Syria. Six other men who were part of the alleged plot have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to support a foreign terrorist organization. A 10th man is at-large, believed to be in Syria.
During the trial, which is in its third week, prosecutors played secretly recorded conversations in which the men discussed travel plans, including the possibility of obtaining fake passports to go to Syria via Mexico.
Omar testified that he and his friends held regular study groups to discuss the Quran. He said that after one man left for Syria, the group began discussing the political situation there, but the group was not like the government portrayed it and he knew of no legitimate plans for anyone to travel.
The men became paranoid by late 2014 after one man who was stopped from traveling earlier that year learned he would be soon arrested. Omar said he and others were followed by the FBI. One group member, Abdirahman Bashir, told Omar that he had met with two FBI agents who asked if Omar was a recruiter. Omar said Bashir told him, "Guled, I think you are in big trouble."
Omar said Bashir, who became an FBI informant and began recording conversations, suggested that Omar leave the country.
"I was confused," Omar said, adding that he had anxiety and paranoia and was self-medicating with marijuana and the prescription drug Xanax. "I felt like everyday somebody was going to break into my house and snatch me away from my family."
Omar said he was told about a scheme to get fake passports. Omar initially told Bashir it was a good idea, but then began having doubts. He said he never provided Bashir with money or passport photos. Omar also testified that he felt conflicted and pressured to choose between his family and his religious beliefs.
Some of Omar's testimony contradicted that of Bashir and other witnesses.
Omar spoke emphatically as he explained that his previous attempts to travel outside Minnesota were not attempts to join militant groups, as the government has alleged, but were meant to be vacations. One planned trip to Kenya in 2012 was supposed to be for a wedding, he said, not to join his brother — who left Minnesota in 2007 to join al-Shabab in Somalia.
Omar cried as he talked about the pain his brother's departure inflicted on his family, especially his mother. A handful of women in the gallery began sobbing; a few left the courtroom.
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.
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