MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Three Minnesota men accused of plotting to go to Syria to join the Islamic State group were convicted Friday of conspiracy to commit murder overseas — a charge that carries a possible sentence of life in prison.
The defendants — Guled Ali Omar, 21; Abdirahman Yasin Daud, 22; and Mohamed Abdihamid Farah, 22 — showed little emotion as the three-week trial came to a close. Several people sitting in seats reserved for family broke down in tears; others left the courtroom in disbelief.
U.S. District Judge Michael Davis didn't immediately set a sentencing date, saying he wanted to review the case and hear directly from the Somali-American men before making a decision.
In addition to the most serious murder-conspiracy charge, the three faced multiple other counts, including plotting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
"Can I write to you?" Omar quietly asked the judge.
"Yes sir, you can write to me anytime," Davis responded. Looking at Farah, he said: "And this time, I don't want you to hold anything back."
Young men from Minnesota's Somali community, the nation's largest, have been a target for terror recruiters in recent years.
Prosecutors have said Omar, Daud and Farah were part of a group of friends who inspired and recruited each other to join the Islamic State organization. Six others earlier pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiring to support a foreign terrorist organization. A seventh, 22-year-old Abdi Nur, is at large, believed to be in Syria.
Others who were part of the group but have not been charged were successful in going overseas.
"These were not wayward kids who just got caught up in a fantasy," said U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, adding that he was satisfied with the federal jury's ruling. "They made a deeply personal and deliberate decision back in 2014. They wanted to fight for a brutal terrorist organization, kill innocent people and destroy their own families in the process."
He called the trial "one of the most important" seen in Minnesota in years, because it put a spotlight on ongoing terror recruitment.
The three defendants, all from Minneapolis and arrested a year ago, pleaded not guilty during the trial.
"I really thought there was a tenuous connection between what my client allegedly did and the conspiracy to commit murder charge," said Farah's attorney, Murah Mohammed.
Prosecutors built their case largely on recordings made by Abdirahman Bashir, a friend of the men who went on to become a paid informant.
It was revealed during the trial that he made $119,000, prompting family and friends to protest what they called entrapment. A small gathering was held on the plaza outside the courthouse after the verdicts. The Star Tribune reported some the defendants' supporters carried signs that said "Stop FBI Entrapment" and "Stop Targeting Somalis."
Bashir testified that members of the group eagerly watched propaganda videos that included beheadings and mass executions. He also secretly recorded conversations with the defendants discussing the best way to get to Syria and scheming to get false passports.
Omar, the only defendant to take the stand, testified that he and friends held study groups to discuss the Quran, and discussed the political situation Syria, but he knew of no legitimate plans for anyone to travel there.
He also said he thought a proposal to get fake passports was not good.
The case was 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 level. In other cases, most recruitment has been done online.
The FBI has said roughly a dozen young men and women left Minnesota to join militants in Syria in recent years. And since 2007, more than 22 men have joined al-Shabab in Somalia.