Opening Statements Begin In Minneapolis ISIS Recruitment Trial

May 11, 2016
Originally published on May 12, 2016 2:54 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Opening statements began today in a Minneapolis federal courtroom in what is being called the largest ISIS recruitment trial so far in the United States. Three Somali-Americans are on trial for allegedly plotting to join the Islamic State with seven of their friends. The case is expected to offer the most detailed public account yet of how ISIS recruited nearly a dozen young men from the Twin Cities. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston is in Minneapolis following the case.

Dina, remind us about who the defendants are and what the specific charges are against them.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, the three defendants are Mohamed Farah, Guled Omar and Abdirahman Daud. And they're all in their early 20s, and they're charged with, among other things, conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization. Basically, that means they allegedly intended to provide themselves as fighters to ISIS. And prosecutors also say they intended to commit murder overseas.

And, as you say, this case is part of a broader investigation in which 10 high school and college friends in the Twin Cities are thought to have worked together to eventually travel to Syria and join ISIS. And six people in that case have already pleaded guilty. So if the jury finds these three defendants guilty, they actually face life in prison.

SHAPIRO: Well, what'd you learn from opening statements today?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the government provided some hints about the evidence that they have. Among other things, the government plans to call three of the men who have already pleaded guilty in the case. Prosecutors also said that the government was going to present some secret recordings that show how the men began arranging their trips to go to Syria and to reveal what motivated them to go.

SHAPIRO: If that's what you heard from the prosecution, how about the defense?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there are three different defense attorneys, and they're really different in terms of style. One is a bit aggressive, another is incredibly laid-back and the third likes to talk about how he's one of the oldest people in the room. But their narratives so far are really similar. Their argument is that their clients are just big talkers, and that they didn't intend to follow through with their plans to travel to Syria.

There's an FBI confidential informant in the case, and defense lawyers focused on him, too. They said the informant was paid, and to get more money, he seemed to be pushing these young men to go further than they otherwise would have. The defense says these secret tapes will help their clients because they'll show that the government informant was really goading these men to action.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned that the defendants are in their early 20s. How was their age playing out in this case?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they're 21 and 22-years-old, and it was actually one of the questions that the government lawyers asked potential jurors during the voir dire process yesterday before they were impaneled. The prosecution asked them whether they thought the defendants were too young to be held responsible for their actions, and they dismissed jurors who suggested that they felt a little bit sorry for the defendants because they were so young.

SHAPIRO: And what are you going to be looking for as this case unfolds?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the government is putting on its case first. It's expected to call 26 witnesses including these three friends of the defendants who were part of the alleged plan. They're going to present some 340 exhibits including some of those secret tape recordings we talked about.

And their part of the case is expected to last two weeks, and that could be a very interesting part of the case because we'll hear from people who actually radicalized for the first time from young men from the Twin Cities who say that they actually were seduced by ISIS. And the judge said that he expects the whole trial will last about four weeks.

SHAPIRO: Thanks very much, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.