MINNEAPOLIS—Abdirashid Daud didn't think anything was out of the ordinary with his brother's friend Abdirahman Bashir. Bashir would come over to their house to hang out after school, chatting in the basement about sports or staying over for dinner.
“He was at my house a lot, we played video games and basketball,” Daud told me.
Little did he know, Bashir was secretly recording hours of conversations with Daud's brother and his friends, part of his job as a confidential FBI informant. Those recordings are now key evidence in the largest trial of alleged ISIS supporters in the country.
As the case goes to trial, many young Somali-Americans here are wondering if any of their friends are wearing wires for the FBI. The bureau's multi-year investigation into more than a dozen young men has sown distrust among the community, locals say, making some Somalis less likely to confide in their neighbors or have faith in government officials.
“Since the day that this started, it's changed in this community, it's been different,” said Daud, 20. He said he now feels a form of “self-censorship” among Somalis, especially in discussions about terrorism. People are suddenly a lot more careful discussing their opinions. “There’s no trust between nobody… It seems like everybody’s working for the government.”
The three defendants in the trial—Abdirahman Daud, 22, Mohamed Farah, 22, and Guled Omar, 21—are charged with conspiracy to commit murder outside the U.S. and attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization. None of them have criminal records, but if convicted, they could be in prison for the rest of their lives. Six more young men have pled guilty to lower charges, some of whom will be testifying against the three.
Tensions within the community broke out into full view Friday during the testimony of Abdullahi Yusuf, a 20-year-old cooperating witness for the government, who said the three defendants encouraged him to travel to Syria and join the Islamic State. Yusuf's mother watched in a visitor's bench. A man sitting behind her started whispering to her in Somali, and she got upset and starting talking back. The disturbance angered the judge, who yelled at them in front of the jury and ordered a whole row of spectators to leave the courtroom.
The man whispering to Yusuf’s mother told her “your son is a spy,” according to Mukhtar Ibrahim, a reporter with Minnesota Public Radio who speaks Somali.
In some families, the divide is even closer to home. Adnan Farah, 20, pled guilty to a lower charge of conspiracy to support a terrorist group, against the advice of his family. Meanwhile, his brother Mohamed pled not guilty and is on trial. When Adnan told the judge his guilty plea, his mother fainted in the back of the courtroom. (Adnan is not expected to testify against his brother.)
One thing that’s hard for some people to understand is how three young men who didn’t actually join ISIS or even leave the country could be facing life in prison. Legal experts say it has to do with the open-ended laws they're charged under.
Kenneth Udoibok, who represents Adnan Farah, said he felt that the material support of terrorism law is so broad that his client didn’t have a good chance of being acquitted if he had gone to trial. “The statute upon which he was charged is broader than boarding a flight or even buying a plane ticket,” Udoibok said. “You can indict a yellow lab on material support.”
The fact that their fate will be decided by an all-white jury doesn’t seem to help their chances. "We wish the jury would have some diversity," Ayan Farah, the mother of Mohamed and Adnan Farah, said through an interpreter. "We are hoping that they see that these kids could be their brothers or sons—we hope their humanity comes out."
The federal jury pool was drawn from around the state, but in Minneapolis there's a substantial Somali population. More Somali-Americans call Minnesota home than any other state in the U.S. Many here live in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, which is dominated by a modernist housing tower that looms above streets dotted with restaurants serving Somali cuisine.
Some say the trial is deepening divides between Somalis in the Minneapolis area. “This is a community that’s reeling from a long civil war,” said Kamal Hassan, the founder of the Somali Human Rights Commission, a local nonprofit. “When the government pits our youth against each other, bribes some or intimidates some into testifying against each other, that exacerbates the mistrust in the community.
“There’s a lot of suspicion within the community about informants who are supposed to be everywhere,” Hassan added. “People don’t feel safe, we don’t discuss this radicalization issue or voice dissent to government policies.”
The U.S. Attorney's Office is working to engage with the community—this year, it helped fund a grant program for local Somali nonprofits in an effort to fight extremist recruiting. The office gave $216,000 in funding to Youthprise, an independent nonprofit, which awarded $300,000 in grants to six other groups for efforts like addressing youth unemployment and creating after-school programs. Known as "Building Community Resilience," the funding is a part of the Obama administration's larger Combatting Violent Extremism (CVE) effort.
But even the grants have raised the suspicions of some Somalis, who think it could lead to government surveillance. The program was announced around the same time the first prosecutions of the young men began. Osman Ali, 25, a friend of the three defendants, said he was concerned about the broader message of the CVE programs. Why, he wondered, was only the Somali community being singled out as needing de-radicalization? “It’s a way to criminalize thoughts,” he said.
Ben Petok, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney, said those fears were unfounded. “Our office and the DOJ at large has absolutely no role in reviewing grants, making decisions about grants, or distributing money,” he said. Several Somali community leaders who received grants from the program or were involved in setting it up did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, some attending the trial said they felt they were being treated differently because of their race. At the federal courthouse in downtown Minneapolis, spectators for the trial—almost all Somali—were roped off in a narrow line on the edge of the cavernous lobby, let upstairs to the courtroom six people at a time. Meanwhile, attorneys, journalists, and jurors—almost all non-Somali—strolled past the line. Halfway through the week, federal agents with a bomb-sniffing dog became a constant presence in the lobby.
Chris Clifford, an assistant chief with the local U.S. Marshals office, which directs security at the courthouse, denied that the security measures in place would be different for any other trial with many spectators. “Everybody is in that line,” he said. “We have bomb-sniffing dogs here all the time.”
On Thursday, at a small but spirited protest in front of the courthouse, friends of the defendants, Black Lives Matter members, and activists with a group called Minnesotans against Islamophobia hoisted signs and shouted slogans about government surveillance.
Burhan Mohumed, 26, a community organizer who wore a goatee and browline glasses under the brim of a grey baseball cap, said he had friends who were scared to come out to the protest and make their voices heard. “This has created a silence in the community,” he said. “It feels like we’re basically all under criminal investigation.”
With two to three weeks more to go in the trial, it's not yet clear how deep or lasting the effects will be on the Somali community.
“Hopefully this case will not define who we are as Americans,” said Sadik Warfa, a community leader. “The Somali-American community is not on trial.
“This is our country, we are Americans,” Warfa added. “We love this country.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the U.S. Attorney's office awarded grants to six nonprofit groups. The grants were actually awarded by an independent intermediary organization, which received funding in part from the U.S. Attorney's office.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.