MINNEAPOLIS – A federal judge said Tuesday that he won't dismiss charges against seven Minnesota men accused of conspiring to travel to Syria to fight with the Islamic State group, saying the defense arguments have no merit.
U.S. District Judge Michael Davis' order comes a day before a hearing on dozens of motions in the case. Though many requests are standard, documents filed ahead of the hearing provide glimpses into the investigation, and show that the scope of the alleged conspiracy goes beyond the men being prosecuted. Some details:
Seven Minnesota men have pleaded not guilty to conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and other counts. Prosecutors allege the men, friends in Minnesota's Somali community, began meeting in spring 2014 to talk about traveling to Syria to join the Islamic State group.
Defense attorneys sought to dismiss several counts, arguing that membership or independent advocacy for a terrorist organization is protected under the First Amendment, and that the Islamic State is more like a nation than a terror group because it proclaims itself sovereign, controls territory and has an army.
But Davis said independent advocacy or passive membership is different from active conduct. He also said the Islamic State group has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization. Davis also disagreed with a defense argument that the men's rights to freely exercise their religion are being violated.
Other requests submitted by defense attorneys will be taken up Wednesday.
Prosecutors say several men met multiple times in early 2014 to talk about routes to Syria, costs and potential funding sources. They also watched jihadi propaganda, communicated on messaging apps that couldn't be traced, played paintball for "training" and looked to the successes and failures of other travelers as they modified plans.
One man, Hanad Mohallim, left the U.S. for Syria in March 2014, prosecutors say. Weeks later Abdullahi Yusuf and Abdi Nur applied for expedited passports. Yusuf was stopped at the airport and has since pleaded guilty to a terror charge, while Nur left the U.S. in May 2014.
Another man, Yusuf Jama, left in early June 2014 by taking a bus from Minneapolis to New York City then flying overseas. Four defendants attempted that same route to Syria last November.
Prosecutors say the defendants believe Mohallim and Jama are dead, though their deaths haven't been confirmed, while Nur has become "a consistent source of information and inspiration" for the men. Authorities say the defendants talked about becoming martyrs and foot soldiers for Nur, whom the men described as being in an elite special forces group within the Islamic State group.
The defense is asking that prosecutors be ordered to disclose the identity of an informant, who began cooperating with the FBI this year, so they can interview him. But prosecutors say the informant will be a trial witness so he'll be subject to cross-examination.
The use of an informant has enraged some in the Somali community, who claim the men were entrapped. Prosecutors say the men came up with plans before the informant began cooperating; defense attorneys say the informant's credibility and motivations are key to their defense.
Defense attorneys also asked that the court limit visible security at trial. Past hearings have included added security, such as bomb-sniffing dogs. Prosecutors argued these measures are appropriate, saying the hearings are packed, some audience members don't stand when the judge enters and some have exchanged "fist-pumping salutes" with defendants.
Davis denied that request for now, but said the defense could ask again after a trial date is set.
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