MINNEAPOLIS — A federal judge here on Wednesday ordered three young men accused of plotting to travel to Syria to fight for the Islamic State kept in detention while awaiting trial, at least for now. That decision came after the defense argued that entrusting the men immediately to their families and Somali-American leaders was the best way to insulate them from radical Islam.
Osman Ahmed, a Somali-American businessman. His nephew died after joining Al Shabaab.
Thursday, July 09, 2015
But United States District Judge Michael J. Davis, in a shift from what other federal judges have done in similar cases involving young people accused of being Islamic State recruits, signaled a willingness to revisit his decision in the coming months.
“This is way too important for us to treat it as a regular criminal case,” Judge Davis said at the end of the third hearing. “It has a dynamic to it that we have to address, and hopefully we can.”
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The issue of how to deradicalize young people attracted to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has become increasingly important here and in many other communities where recruitment by militant Islamic groups, often done online, has led to arrests.
Minneapolis, with its large Somali immigrant community, has been a recruitment hotbed for years. More than 20 people in Minnesota have faced federal charges related to Al Shabaab, an African terror group, with at least 10 more cases related to ISIS. Defendants have usually been detained while awaiting trial, as prosecutors have argued that they remain flight risks and threats to the community.
But some Muslim leaders here are trying to make a different case: that the best way to push young people away from militant Islamic groups is to keep them engaged with their community, with responsible clerics and their relatives.
Such an approach, they say, would be a humane counterpoint to the terrorist narrative that the American justice system is anti-Muslim and strictly punitive.
“If you integrate them back into their family relationships and you have responsible faith leaders, then that’s going to be the check on them that they need,” said Representative Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat who is Muslim. “There’s going to be people watching them, encouraging them.”
The three Minnesotans who appeared in court on Wednesday — Hamza Ahmed, 20; Zacharia Abdurahman, 19; and Hanad Musse, 19 — face federal charges of conspiracy and trying to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization. They could face decades in prison. They are believed to have traveled by bus to New York last year, where they each were prevented from leaving on overseas flights.
All three have pleaded not guilty, and prosecutors have opposed pretrial release.
“We recognize there are plenty of people who are well-meaning and interested in helping this person make a change,” Andrew R. Winter, the assistant United States attorney, said during one of Wednesday’s hearings. “This is not the time for that.”
Judge Davis said deradicalization was likely to be an important component of any release plan. He also said that any release would start at a halfway house, not living with relatives, as some of the lawyers suggested.
Continue reading the main story “We have to be very careful,” Judge Davis said in court, “and I’m not going to allow anyone out at the first juncture to go home.”
Even with those caveats, there is limited precedent for considering pretrial release in these cases.
Alison Siegler, a clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School and longtime federal criminal defense lawyer, said she could not recall a terrorism defendant who was granted pretrial release.
“Concerns about safety are usually the overriding concerns in these cases,” said Professor Siegler, who once represented a terrorism defendant in Chicago.
Judge Davis previously released one defendant to a halfway house after he pleaded guilty to similar charges. That man is back in jail after being found in violation of halfway house rules.
To varying degrees, the release proposals in Minnesota leaned on Somali-American community groups and leaders to counsel and provide structure for the young men. Lawyers for Mr. Abdurahman, for instance, suggested that he attend a local mosque, coach youth basketball and work with an organization to help recent African immigrants fill out job applications.
Abdisalam Adam, a local imam who has visited the men in jail, agreed to mentor Mr. Musse if he was released. Mr. Adam said after court that he did not believe the men would be a threat to the community and that reintegration would be a positive step.
Imams, family members and others from this region’s large Somali-American community filled the courtroom Wednesday, and afterward spoke with a mix of disappointment about their release and optimism that could change when the cases return to court in September.
But some Somalis are among those who are skeptical about release in these cases. Osman Ahmed, a Somali-American business owner and activist whose nephew was killed after joining Al Shabaab, said he had mixed emotions. On the one hand, he said pretrial release could benefit relations between law enforcement agencies and the Somali community. On the other hand, he questioned whether there were effective programs to combat extremism.
“Just coming home doesn’t solve the problem itself,” said Mr. Ahmed, who added that he was not related to Hamza Ahmed. “They have to publicly come out and condemn: ‘We’ve been brainwashed.’ ”
Though federal prosecutors opposed release for these defendants, they said they were open to considering it in the future if the accused had accepted responsibility and denounced terrorism.
“It is in the interest of public safety for terror recruits to reject violence and extremism,” Andrew M. Luger, the United States attorney and the state’s top federal prosecutor, said in a statement. “If and when a defendant in this district charged with seeking to join a terror organization admits guilt and commits to turning his life around, we will consider supporting, before the court, programs led by competent professionals that can advance public safety by assisting in the rehabilitation process.”