MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — One of seven men awaiting trial in Minnesota on charges of plotting to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State group admitted Wednesday that he knew its members had carried out beheadings, taken hostages and raped women, but he believed they were fighting evil and he wanted to join anyway.
Hanad Mustafe Musse, 19, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, specifically, the Islamic State group. Musse admitted to meeting with his co-defendants several times to plan travel to Syria. He said he made two attempts himself, but was stopped.
"I have committed a terrorist act and I'm guilty of it, your honor," Musse told U.S. District Judge Michael Davis. Musse faces a maximum of 15 years in prison; a sentencing date has not been set.
Musse is among a group of men arrested in April and charged with terrorism-related offenses. Authorities described them as friends in the state's large Somali community who recruited and inspired each other and met secretly to plan their travels. Another co-defendant was arrested earlier this year.
Musse's guilty plea could signal more to come. Defense attorney Marsh Halberg, who is not connected to this case, said it's common that once one person in a conspiracy flips, there is a cascading effect and more plea deals follow.
Authorities have said about a dozen people have left Minnesota to join jihadi groups in Syria.
In court Wednesday, Musse admitted that he and his co-defendants were part of the conspiracy, along with two others: Abullahi Yusuf, who has already pleaded guilty in the case and is cooperating with the government, and Abdi Nur, who traveled to Syria in May 2014.
Musse said Nur is his cousin, and that he knew as early as June 2014 that Nur had made the trip.
Musse said he knew the Islamic State group was a terrorist organization, but he still wanted to join it. He said he learned about the group through its online propaganda, and he viewed the group's members as freedom fighters who are saving the oppressed people of Syria.
Musse admitted that he and three of his co-defendants went by bus to New York City last November and bought tickets for overseas travel at JFK Airport. Musse said he booked a flight to Athens, Greece, and intended to go to Syria from there.
But Musse was stopped from traveling and returned to the Twin Cities.
In the winter and spring of this year, Musse said, he and others continued discussing travel routes and ways to pay for their trips. Musse told Davis the group met more than 10 times. Because some group members had already been stopped, the men discussed getting fake passports.
Musse gave a picture to one of his co-defendants so a fake passport could be made. The plan was to head to California, then Mexico, and go to Syria from there. But that effort was stopped by Musse's father.
"My father came up to me and he confronted me about our plans and he told me not to leave, and I listened to him," Musse said. He added that he listens to his parents as he is supposed to, but then said: "I still wanted to go."
"I made this decision out of true confusion" Musse said.
U.S. Attorney Andy Luger, who attended the plea hearing, said in a statement: "The facts set forth in Mr. Musse's guilty plea underscore the length and breadth of this criminal conspiracy."
Luger said youths in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area continue to be the targets of an intense recruiting campaign by the Islamic State group. He said parents, religious leaders, teachers, community leaders and authorities must work together to end the cycle of recruiting.
The plea deal came on the same day Luger and members of the Somali community announced implementation of a plan to combat recruiting through mentoring programs, job opportunities and other initiatives.
Musse's attorney, Andrew Birrell, had no comment after the hearing. Birrell said in court that as part of the plea agreement, the government agreed not to prosecute Musse on additional offenses.
Under the plea deal, one count of attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and one count of financial aid fraud will be dismissed. Musse, a college student, admitted he used his federal financial aid to fund his attempted travel.
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