MINNEAPOLIS (KMSP) - Guled Omar remembers the first discussions of Syria and ISIS. It was April 2014 at a regular Islamic study group and one of the members, Abdullahi Yusuf, started describing the civil war going on there. His close friend, Hanad Mohallin had left the US for Syria a few weeks before. Yusuf told them why he went, the fight he was joining and asked the group “what do you guys think about that.”
Guled Omar is the only one of three defendants in a federal terror trial who chose to take the stand in his own defense. He spent Thursday afternoon recounting the events from his standpoint and denied he was part of a conspiracy to join ISIS and that when he was ultimately arrested trying to buy fake passports, it was because he was afraid from the mounting pressure of an FBI investigation of his group of friends.
“I got interested in this topic and this conflict because I had a personal touch of it because what my family went through,” he testified. He had earlier explained his parents fleeing Somalia because of its civil war and how the memories of that still caused his mother nightmares, how he would have to comfort her middle of the night screams that woke them up.
“We talked about Syria but nobody made legit plans to try to travel to Syria,” he said about his group of friends in the study group.
He told jurors that the first time he saw ISIS videos showing a Jordanian pilot being burned alive and prisoners being beheaded was in the courtroom. Other ISIS propaganda videos he did watch, he testified, he saw only as entertainment. “Honestly, I never believed this was actually real.”
Throughout the trial, there have been several witnesses, men who’ve pled guilty, who described how they watched and discussed this videos constantly. And as they did, their testimony and social media evidence suggests, they plotted ways to join ISIS and kept in touch with friends who were there.
He explained that when his family intervened and stopped a planned road trip to California in May of 2014, he had only planned to take a 3 week vacation, not try to fly out. “My mom heard about kids leaving before and also heard about a kid who’d recently left,” Omar told jurors. “My mom tells me you’re trying to trick me, where are you going?”
One of the men who was part of that aborted road trip was Abdirahman Bashiir, who had several cousins who’d gone to Syria and would later become an FBI informant. His secret recordings became a centerpiece of the investigation and of the trial. The other man was Abdi Nur, who would fly out of the US a few weeks later.
He also testified an attempt to fly out of the Twin Cities in November of 2014 was also simply for vacation in California. He told jurors that when he saw FBI cars trailing him to the airport, he had a feeling he’d be stopped.
Of his April 2015 arrest in San Diego, he blamed that on pressure from the FBI’s informant and on the mounting pressure of their investigation, which had made them all paranoid. He testified that it was Yusuf, the one who’d begun the Syrian talks a year earlier, who had incriminated them all.
“Abdullahi Yusuf is telling us all we’re about to get arrested,” he testified, that Yusuf had said that if he went down “all you guys are going down too,” implying that Yusuf unfairly incriminated them all. “So he’s telling us all we’re going to get arrested along with him. We’re all getting followed by all these FBI cars. We’re all paranoid.”
It was this paranoia, that there was no way out, that he claims convinced him his only option was to follow Bashiir’s pressure to go to San Diego and buy fake passports. As he told this story, the mothers of the three defendants began to cry. Afterwards, the mother of Abdirahman Daud said they became emotional because they were finally hearing the truth in court.
Omar will continue his testimony on Friday, the final witness in a three week trial. Closing arguments are set for Tuesday.
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