Attorneys for four Minnesota men accused of trying to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State group challenged the government's use of a paid informant, arguing at a detention hearing Thursday that his involvement makes the case suspect.
The men are among six charged in a criminal complaint unsealed Monday with conspiracy to support a foreign terrorist organization. An FBI affidavit cited evidence from a man who once tried to travel to Syria himself, and lied about it to agents, before deciding to cooperate in January.
Thursday's hearing was for Guled Omar, 20; Adnan Abdihamid Farah, 19; Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman, 19; and Hanad Mustafe Musse, 19. Two other men, Mohamed Abdihamid Farah, 21, and Abdurahman Daud, 21, faced hearings later in San Diego, where they were arrested.
Authorities described the men as friends in Minnesota's Somali community who recruited and inspired each other and met secretly to plan their travels.
Defense attorneys attacked the government's payments to the informant. Musse's attorney, Andy Birrell, asked whether his compensation was related to the number of people who wound up being charged.
Attorneys for the men also questioned how the FBI could take the informant's word when he initially lied to them, and when only some of his conversations with the men charged were taped. They also claimed it was the informant's idea to pursue fake passports to get to Syria.
FBI Special Agent Harry Samit testified the informant was paid nearly $13,000 for expenses and "services." He said the amount wasn't related to the number of people charged. One reason for paying the informant, Samit said, was because he was being asked to gather evidence against people involved in "the most violent terrorist group in the world."
"He's exposing himself to a certain element of danger," Samit said.
Samit also said the investigation was broader than just the informant's evidence, and that agents verified some details through their own surveillance.
As for why not all conversations were recorded, Samit said some early conversations happened between the time the informant began cooperating and when he was given recording equipment. He also said some conversations didn't wind up on tape because of equipment failure or poor sound quality.
The fake passports were initially Abdurahman's idea, Samit testified, but when the first attempt fell through, the FBI suggested the informant use the same idea and come up with a new plan.
When Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty asked Samit how the defendants responded to the idea, Samit said: "Very enthusiastically."
Monday's announcement of charges threw Minnesota's Somali community, the largest in the U.S., into familiar turmoil. Since 2007, more than 22 young Somali men have traveled from Minnesota to Somalia to join the militant group al-Shabab, which like the Islamic State group is classified by the U.S. as a terrorist group. Authorities have also said a handful of Minnesota residents have traveled to Syria to fight with militants in the past year.
Scores of people from the Somali community packed the courtroom Thursday, plus an overflow room and spilled into the hallway.
As the hearing began, Docherty told the courtroom that several attempts had been made to contact the informant or members of his family, and said there had been "ugly behavior" toward him on social media. Docherty warned that such activities could lead to prosecution.
Samit said the man has been relocated, but isn't in custody or under constant watch.
Magistrate Judge Becky Thorson ordered the four men to remain in custody while their case is pending, causing an outburst in the courtroom. After Thorson thanked family and friends of the men for saying they were willing to supervise them on release, but that she had to look at the weight of the evidence, one man shouted at the judge.
"You cannot weight anything," the man said. "We are the community, ma'am. You should ask us!" He was led from the courtroom.