The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Terror dragnet sweeps up Somali American’s sons: ‘Now everything is broken.’

Haqhawo Qaasim holds a photo of Guled Ali Omar, one of three defendants who have pleaded not guilty to conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP)

For more than a year, drapes have shrouded the windows in Ayan Farah's house, and construction paper has been carefully taped over the glass on the front and back doors.

The coverings went up last spring to deflect the TV cameras that appeared after FBI agents swarmed Farah’s house, overturning the life she had built in the United States along with the cushions on her living-room couch.

In the largest case of its kind on U.S. soil, the FBI swept up 10 young men from the Twin Cities’ tight-knit Somali American community and accused them of conspiring to join the Islamic State and commit murder on its behalf. One man made it to Syria and has been charged in absentia. Six, including Farah’s second-oldest son, Adnan, 20, took plea deals and are awaiting sentencing. Three pleaded not guilty. Those include Mohamed, 22, Farah’s eldest son.

Now Mohamed faces the prospect of life in prison.

So Farah keeps her windows covered, rises early each day and heads to court, where she struggles to understand the proceedings against her firstborn son, the one who was supposed to finish at St. Paul College and lead a normal life. She has five other children — all Americans, like Adnan and Mohamed, born in the United States. She has missed picking them up from school, missed taking them to Monday night tutoring, missed precious hours at her restaurant, where she works to support them.

The trial of Mohamed and the two others who pleaded not guilty — Guled Ali Omar, 21, and Abdirahman Yasin Daud, 22 — opened last week and is expected to last a month. Already, Farah is exhausted.

“I had a beautiful house, beautiful husband, beautiful children, beautiful life,” she said. “Now everything is broken.”

An embattled community

Over the past two years, the U.S. government has charged more than 80 people in connection with the Islamic State, the terrorist group that surged to global prominence in 2014. More than 30 have been convicted; the rest are on trial or awaiting their day in court.

The prosecutions are stirring anxiety among American Muslims, who fear their communities are being targeted for federal entrapment. After Islamic State-inspired attacks in Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino, Calif., terrorism has become a major issue in the U.S. presidential campaign, and Donald Trump is cruising to the Republican nomination, helped by a call to ban Muslims from entering the country. From Los Angeles to Alexandria, Va., American Muslims complain of increasing harassment — and of intensifying scrutiny from law enforcement.

The Twin Cities area of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., is home to the nation’s largest community of Somali immigrants. Here, in drab high-rise apartments wedged between two interstates, a sense of unease is pervasive. Parents worry that children who have done no wrong will be targeted. Imams worry that they will be accused of “radicalizing” their followers. And everyone worries about neighbors who appear too cozy with police and other authorities.

“The biggest scare is how can you prove someone is innocent? If they set up something, you’re done,” said the father of one of Adnan’s friends, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is a government employee.

After his son attended a hearing for Adnan, the man said, the FBI showed up at his house asking whether the parents had possession of their son’s passport and whether the young man slept at home.

“My wife and I ask each other, ‘What are we going to say if they come and arrest him?’ ” If someone makes up a story, he said, “how are you going to disprove it?”

Although Somali immigrants have lived here for more than two decades, they remain a people apart. The older generation struggles with English. At a recent soccer tournament, parents conferred in Somali on the sidelines, while referees and coaches shouted in Somali to the players. Minnesota has Somali TV channels and a new Somali radio station.

The younger generation is fluent in English but often adrift between old and new worlds. The Islamic State tries to lure them, federal authorities and some community leaders say, with sleek videos projecting power, camaraderie and a clear identity.

Those videos ensnared Mohamed, Adnan and their friends, according to the FBI, which tracked the young men for nearly a year. The group was largely self-radicalized, the government says, by watching Islamic State videos at home, in cars and in a local mosque.

“I’m through with America,” Mohamed allegedly said on a tape made by a paid informant. Prosecutors claim that he also defended the Islamic State’s execution of a Jordanian pilot, who was locked in a cage and burned alive on camera, and that he watched the group’s videos on his smartphone while on the job for UPS.

Mohamed is hardly accused of being a ringleader. In testimony, one of the men who pleaded guilty fingered Omar as the mastermind and Daud as the one who provided contact numbers for the Islamic State. Mohamed allegedly helped with applying for a passport and opening a bank account to purchase a plane ticket for the man who made it to Syria.

But like the others, prosecutors say, Mohamed was trying to get to Syria: He was arrested last year in San Diego after he, Daud and the paid informant collected fake passports from an undercover agent.

Mohamed’s mother will not talk about the evidence against her son. She does not contest the claim in court filings that she and her husband once confiscated their sons’ passports, worried that the boys would disappear.

What she will say is that Mohamed is a good boy who never used drugs and had no criminal record. She says he was tricked and manipulated, a victim of what seems to her to be entrapment.

One of the government’s star witnesses is Abdirahman Bashir, who avoided prosecution and received more than $100,000 in direct payments and other expenses after he agreed to spy on his friends and record their conversations, defense attorneys say.

America’s suspected ISIS supporters

"The only reason they're in that situation is because [the FBI]
paid somebody," said Burhan Mohumed, 26, a college student and local activist who has been attending the trial. "It's known throughout the community that this kid, the informant, he provided everything — the contacts in Syria, the passports."

Defense attorneys describe Bashir as an instigator who harassed anyone who wavered. “Every time an excuse is made to not leave, to back out, Mr. Bashir” found a way “to push the plan forward,” said Daud’s attorney, Bruce Nestor.

Last week, the judge told the jury that prosecutors bear the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Mohamed and his friends were willing to commit the crime even without the involvement of federal agents.

However, an entrapment defense rarely prevails in federal terrorism cases, and Mohamed’s mother is trying hard to remain optimistic.

‘They were polite, happy kids’

Until the FBI showed up, Ayan Farah thought she had done everything right.

She was 19 and alone when she came to the United States, a refu­gee from Somalia’s brutal civil war. She left her mother and siblings in a Kenyan refu­gee camp and settled in Minnesota.

In quick order, she married Abdihamid Farah, a school bus driver; found a job packaging turkeys; and gave birth to Mohamed. She helped the rest of her family come to the United States from Kenya, and her growing brood soon moved from a cramped apartment to a two-story duplex with its own tiny patch of green.

Several months ago, she opened a restaurant, Hooyo’s Kitchen, featuring Somali specialties alongside her take on American classics. There’s “Hooyo’s pancake special” and “Hooyo’s wings.”

She said her children “never used drugs. They never went to jail. They never touched guns. They never fought in school. They were polite, happy kids.”

Now, Farah sometimes feels as if she’s drowning. In the courtroom, she frowns when the judge speaks. She tries to explain things to her relatives, although she, too, has questions. She takes Benadryl to counter a persistent migraine and shifts uncomfortably on the wooden bench.

Her phone buzzes relentlessly with supportive calls from friends and requests from her other children. Where are the car keys? Can you take me to soccer practice? For a while, she tried to get them to stop watching the news so that they would not see their brothers’ mug shots, but her efforts proved futile. The trial is covered constantly on local television.

The first day, after Mohamed showed up in court in his orange prison uniform, Farah rushed to Macy’s to buy him a suit; the store was closed. At the end of Day 2, she went to her restaurant and cooked for four hours so her brother could keep serving customers. She did the same on Day 3, and on Day 4.

During breaks in the trial, Farah drinks protein-packed fruit smoothies to avoid fainting as she did the day Adnan accepted his plea deal and was led back to jail. Her English is better than that of the mothers of the other defendants, so she is vocal before the news cameras, calling for a fair trial.

But Farah fears the scales of justice already are tipped against her family. Nearly every day, the U.S. marshals try to eject some of her friends and relatives, citing too little space in the courtroom or too much noise.

On Tuesday, officers accused Farah’s 15-year-old daughter of sleeping in court and ejected her for the rest of the day.

The jury that will decide her son’s fate is made up entirely of white people, few of whom have traveled abroad or had much contact with Somali Americans. During jury selection, more than a dozen people were dismissed after admitting bias related to race or terrorism.

“To be honest,” one woman said, “I’m kind of uncomfortable even being in the room.”

Meanwhile, the prosecutors talk and talk about the Islamic State, about Syria, about how Mohamed and his friends are anti-American terrorists at heart, determined to join a group that commits atrocities abroad and foments violence against the country that nurtured them.

Mohamed often slouches, becoming barely visible to his mother back in the third row.

Sometimes, she tries to catch his eye and blow him a kiss.

Julie Tate, Alice Crites and Ann Marimow contributed to this report.