One man convicted of plotting to fight for the Islamic State group in Syria got 35 years in prison. Another got off easy with only time served plus probation. It fell to US District Judge Michael Davis to mete out justice in the long-running case, which targeted a group of young male friends in Minnesota’s large Somali community who prosecutors say helped radicalize each other, watching hours of violent propaganda videos, including beheadings and burnings.
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Some friends made it to Syria. These nine, whom Davis considered to be nothing less than a “terrorist cell” that needed to be stopped, were caught. Davis’ spectrum of sentences is expected to set the pattern for other Islamic State-related terrorism cases across the country — only about half of 110 have been resolved, according to Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law.
He provided some “much needed” rationale behind his decisions, too, Greenberg said. He partly followed a standard legal pattern in which defendants who cooperate get less time and those who don’t get the harshest sentences, she said. But Davis made it clear early on that he wanted to take a nuanced approach due to the age range — 19 to 22 — treating defendants individually and looking for alternatives to incarceration when appropriate. He even traveled to Germany to meet with a noted deradicalization expert.
“The message he’s sending is we can do intervention and here’s how to do it. We’ve been waiting for it for a long time. … This is really taking the lead nationally,” she said.
The defendant Davis considered most amenable to rehabilitation, Abdullahi Yusuf, 20, was sentenced to time served, 21 months. Abdirizak Warsame, 21, got 2½ years with credit for 11 months served. Both men cooperated with the investigation and testified against the group despite strong pressure from within their community. Davis said he’ll personally keep close watch over their 20 years’ supervised release.
Yusuf and Warsame were among the six defendants Davis had evaluated by the German deradicalization expert, Daniel Koehler, who also trained local parole officers in his methods. A local civic engagement group also has been working with Yusuf.
Davis, who has overseen all of Minnesota’s terrorism cases, including several cases earlier involving the Somalia-based terror group al-Shabab, expressed dismay several times in court that no deradicalization programs exist within the federal prison system. So, getting the men programming to keep them from returning to the path of violent jihad meant keeping them out of prison.
“I hope I’m not wrong,” Davis told Yusuf at his sentencing Monday.
Davis appeared to be less pained sentencing those who refused to cooperate, particularly the three who went to trial instead of pleading guilty. Two received 30 years apiece. Guled Omar, 22, a leader of the group, got 35. Three of the four who pleaded guilty but did not cooperate got 10 years; the fourth got 15. Some have already filed appeal notices.
All nine expressed deep regrets. But Davis, the state’s first black federal judge, has seen a lot in his 33 years on the bench, including 22 as a federal judge. He wasn’t moved by Omar’s tearful contrition.
“Everything you have said here, I don’t believe,” Davis told him Wednesday.
Despite Davis’ explanations, the wide range of sentences was confusing to many people, especially the longer prison terms, said Mohamud Noor, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota.
“It’s something many people are still processing,” Noor said.
Building trust between law enforcement and the Somali community has been a priority for U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, who oversaw the prosecutions and launched an initiative to counter terrorist recruiting.
But there’s a long road ahead, Noor said, and the heightened anti-Islamic sentiment in today’s political climate isn’t helping. Still, he said, the work must continue.
“We want to move beyond. We want to move to the healing process. We want to move to closure,” Noor said.