Nine Minnesota men who have been convicted of plotting to join the Islamic State terror group in Syria are scheduled to be sentenced this week, capping a long court case that shined a light on terrorism recruitment. The men are expected to receive various sentences during separate hearings on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Here are some key issues:
WHAT IS THIS ABOUT?
Prosecutors say that starting in the spring of 2014, a group of friends in Minnesota’s large Somali community began inspiring and recruiting each other to travel to Syria to join IS. Some succeeded in making the trip, but others didn’t.
Nine men were prosecuted. Six of them pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, which has a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. The other three went to trial, where they were also convicted of conspiracy to commit murder outside the U.S., which carries a possible life sentence.
When the trial ended, U.S. Attorney Andy Luger called it “one of the most important” trials in Minnesota in years because it put a spotlight on ongoing terrorism recruitment in the state.
The FBI has said about a dozen people have left Minnesota to join terror groups in Syria in recent years. Since 2007, more than 22 men have joined al-Shabab in Somalia. The overall investigation into terror recruitment is ongoing.
HOW LONG WILL THE MEN SPEND IN PRISON?
That’s up to the judge. Prosecutors are asking for lengthy sentences, citing the violence of the Islamic State terror group and some of the men’s persistent attempts to join. But defense attorneys are seeking leniency, saying their clients were young men who felt alienated and caught between two worlds.
Prosecutors are recommending the stiffest sentence — 40 years in prison and supervision for life — for Guled Ali Omar, who was once considered a leader of the group. Omar’s attorney, Glenn Bruder, is asking for 15 years or less, saying Omar and his co-defendants were the “Three-Stooges of international terrorism. Their efforts to abandon the United States were naive, ill-considered and bumbling.”
Prosecutors are seeking 30 years in prison for Omar’s co-defendants, and 15 years for four others who pleaded guilty. They are recommending four-and-a-half years and three-and-a-half years for two men who cooperated. Defense attorneys are seeking less time in each case.
FACTORS IN SENTENCING
In addition to standard presentence investigation reports, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis will consider evaluations done on some of the men to assess their risk for re-engaging in terroristic activities.
The evaluations were conducted as part of a program Davis created to give him more information at sentencing and to help devise plans to de-radicalize the men. Davis, who has been at the forefront of efforts to try to reintegrate terrorism defendants into society, will also consider the level of cooperation — or substantial assistance — each man provided to the government.
Defense attorneys submitted letters from community members that highlight the men’s characters and ask for leniency. Among them was Ilhan Omar, who recently became the first Somali-American state legislator.
Omar wrote that incarcerating the young men for decades would essentially be a life sentence. She said such stiff punishment would cause further alienation and create an environment in which extremism can flourish. Omar asked Davis to consider a restorative approach that focuses on inclusion and rehabilitation.
THE MEN SPEAK OUT
In recent weeks, a couple of the men have come forward and said they’ve changed. Abdirizak Warsame recently told 60 Minutes that he believes two men whom he helped get to Syria are now dead.
“I believe I am responsible for their deaths and I think about that every day,” Warsame said, later adding that the Islamic State terror group is total nonsense and, “It’s not worth your life.”