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Twin Cities ISIS case: Did the feds go too far in hiring an informant?

Twin Cities ISIS case: Did the feds go too far in hiring an informant?

In April, a federal judge ordered four young men in Minnesota to be detained on charges that they had plans to join the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. According to MPR News, the young men’s attorneys argued that none of them has a criminal record. Moreover, the defense states that the way the government obtained evidence – through an informant – constitutes entrapment.

As any Minneapolis criminal defense attorney knows, the government may use a paid informant to gather evidence against a suspect. However, there is a fine line between getting information and inducing someone to commit a crime.

ISIS recruiting process

The impetus for the case starts with ISIS’ tactics of trying to recruit youth, especially those of Somali descent. A report from CBS News demonstrates that the jihadist group has used digital communication and social media campaigns in order to reach young people. For example, there have been several recent headlines detailing teenagers who flee their homes in England and Colorado to travel to Syria to either join ISIS or marry a member. In one case, three teenage girls from Denver – two Somali and one Sudanese – communicated directly with ISIS members. The girls purchased plane tickets and were on their way to Syria when federal agents stopped them in Frankfurt, Germany.

When it comes to local recruitment, KARE11 reports the following:

  • Over the last eight years, more than 22 young Somali men have come to Minnesota to join a militant group.
  • Several Minnesota residents have traveled to Syria to join groups like ISIS.
  • At least one Minnesotan who left to join militants has died.

A spokesperson for the National Counterterrorism Center stated that these ISIS recruitment tactics have become a top concern for law enforcement, prompting the government to provide countermeasures. As evidenced by the case in Minnesota, one such measure is the use of informants.

The St. Paul incident

In total, six young men are facing charges in the counterterrorism sweep that took place in Minnesota. MPR News reports that the men had been targeted as part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s months-long surveillance on ISIS recruitment. According to a criminal complaint, the men had planned on traveling to the Middle East. Allegedly, some of the men were in contact with another man, Abdi Nur, who had purportedly left the Twin Cities to join ISIS.

Five of the men tried to leave the country in November, but failed to do so. They allegedly then tried to obtain false passports through one of Nur’s sources. Soon after, communication with Nur was lost, so the men turned to another source. That source happened to be a paid FBI informant who would eventually take money in exchange for the fake passports.

What is entrapment?

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, defendants can claim entrapment when the government appears to have induced someone into committing a crime. An important factor in a successful entrapment defense is that the person accused of the crime must be someone who would not have done anything illegal had it not been for the government’s influence.

In order to determine the viability of an entrapment claim, a judge will take into account whether there was actual coercion, or if the law enforcement agency merely presented an opportunity for the wrongdoing to occur. In many cases, defendants will have to prove that there were threats, harassment, flattery or fraud used to prompt the criminal activity.

As a Minneapolis criminal defense attorney knows, law enforcement officers are permitted to lie to a suspect. Undercover officers can tell a drug dealer that they are not police and can mislead the person regarding how the drugs will be used, even alleging a notable cause such as an ill relative in pain. However, an officer cannot repeatedly harass a dealer to sell drugs.

Were the Minnesota men entrapped?

The paid informant – who received more than $12,000 in his efforts to catch the young Minnesota men – told the FBI that the young men had the idea to purchase fake passports. However, according to KARE11, defense attorneys claim that buying fake passports was the informant’s idea, not the young men’s. Further, the defense states that the informant had previously lied during a grand jury investigation and could not be trusted.

Friends and family members have attested that the young men did not cause any problems at home and are “good kids,” according to MPR. Defense attorneys also note that none of the young men has a criminal history. One lawyer stated that thinking about doing something and actually doing something are two different things. He went on to say that the only person who took action – purchasing the false passports – was the paid informant.

However, the prosecution has pointed to the fact that the young men did buy plane tickets prior to meeting the informant. Further, one of them had posted pictures to a social media account that included an ISIS flag and a picture of an American-born jihadist.

Spreading fear

In light of the Minnesota arrests, MPR News released a story that details how some community members worry that certain government measures to combat extremism are little more than efforts to spy on Somali-Americans. Many see the recent case as evidence that the federal government will try to entrap them.

The young men – several of whom are still teenagers – will be detained in solitary confinement until a court date because a judge deemed them a flight risk. Anyone with questions regarding entrapment should speak to a Minneapolis criminal defense attorney.

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