ISIL origins explained in day 4 of Minneapolis trial

Day 4 of the federal terror trial of three Minnesota men accused of trying to join ISIL felt a bit more like a college course than a court proceeding. 

Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute who focuses on terrorism and insurgency, continued his testimony for the government explaining the origins, growth and intentions of ISIL. He’d begun late Wednesday, but got no further than explaining his credentials.

Guled Omar, Mohamed Farah and Abdirahman Daud face ten federal counts in total, some of them as a group, some of them as individuals. The most serious charges are that they conspired to commit murder outside the United States and that they conspired to join ISIL, a designated terrorist organization.

As Lister explained how ISIL came to be, at one point the judge had to tell him to slow down, in part so that the jury could not get lost trying to digest complicated history and terminology, and in part, so the court reporter could keep up.

ISIL grew out of an organization formed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had joined with Al Qaeda to form what was initially called Al Qaeda in Iraq, then later the Islamic State in Iraq.  This group was behind the violent insurgency against US armed forces that ultimately led to the US troop surge.

in 2011, he explained, amid a disintegrating relationship with Al Qaeda, the group formed a branch in Syria, recognizing an uprising against the government there as an opportunity to grow.  By 2013, what was now being called ISIL had fully split with Al Qaeda and embarked on a violent and gruesome campaign.

Asked what separates ISIL from about 79 other groups within Syria who are all fighting against the al-Assad regime, he explained those groups are primarily ordinary citizens who’ve picked up guns to fight back. What separates them is the brutality.

“There are no other groups that act like ISIL,” he testified. “Namely if you steal something from the market you will have your hands chopped off in the public square.”

He explained that this brutality serves several purposes: to demonstrate enormous amounts of power and to show supporters it’s bringing back power to Sunni Islam. And, he explained, the show of force only works by making sure as many people see it as possible.

“On social media,” he explained, “ISIL has proved very effective.”  Lister said many of the brutal executions of hostages and prisoners was done with the intent to create videos that would both shock and inspire.

“Very quickly they’ll release a video and immediately it’ll be disseminated by a thousand plus accounts on social media.”

The point of the slickly produced, professional level propaganda, was to win hearts and minds to bring young men from all over to add to their armies. “They’ve sought to recruit on a very large scale from around the world,” testified Lister.

Asked the ultimate goal of ISIL, Lister explained it went far beyond a Syrian civil war and in fact far beyond the Middle East.  What they want, he told the court, is “ultimately world domination. In the immediate term to expand their own control over Islamic territories anywhere in the Islamic world.”

He went on to explain that ISIL's ideology is now very apocalyptic, focused on bringing the end of the world and recruiting focused heavily on the promises of a rich afterlife for those who become martyrs.

“If you die in these battles, which ISIL claims to be about bringing about the end of days, you’ll claim a high position in paradise.”

As court resumed after lunch, questioning moved to the cross examination by the three defense attorneys.

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