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Terrorism Expert Testifies in Trial of Minnesota Men Accused of Joining ISIS

A terrorism expert witness took the stand this week in the trial of three Minnesota men accused of joining ISIS and plotting to commit violent acts abroad.  The high profile trial highlights recent efforts by state and federal government officials to fight growing concerns over radicalization of young men who are exposed to recruitment videos by terror groups such as ISIS.

Minnesota Men Charged with Plotting to Join ISIS

In 2014 the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minnesota began investigating activities of a group of Muslim Somali men residing in Minneapolis – St. Paul due to suspicion of conspiracy to join terrorist groups.  With the cooperation of a friend of the defendants who secretly recorded conversations, the FBI was able to identify nine possible suspects connected to a plot to fly to the Middle East and join with the terrorist network, ISIS.  The group of men allegedly met at parks and Somali shopping centers to discuss leaving the country, and were arrested after some of them drove to San Diego in an effort to obtain fake passports and leave the country.

As a result of a joint counter-terrorism effort between the FBI and local police, a total of nine suspects were detained and charged with plotting to join with and aid ISIS’s terror activities in the Middle East.  The arrests shocked the Somali community in the Twin Cities, with critics accusing the government of unfair scrutiny of Somali Americans living in Minnesota which led to unjust accusations of conspiracy to commit terrorism. Despite concerns about the nature of the investigation, six of the men have pled guilty to lesser charges.

The remaining three defendants have maintained their innocence, setting the stage for a trial which will help shape the US Government’s ongoing strategy to investigate and prosecute alleged terrorist conspirators who are exposed to radical ISIS recruitment videos.

National Terrorism Experts Testifies in Minnesota Trial

The three suspects who chose not to plead guilty – Guled Omar, 21; Abdirahman Daud, 22; and Moahmed Farah, 22 – claim that watching ISIS recruitment videos and discussing the organization with their friends does not mean they became radicalized.  In order to support their case against the defendants, prosecutors called Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., to explain the Syrian conflict and the ISIS terrorist group to jurors in an effort to help them put the defendant’s actions in context.  Lister is a terrorism expert with years of experience studying terrorism recruitment efforts such as the ones ISIS has engaged in, and was tapped by the prosecution in order to show jurors that actions like the defendants’ are indicative of terrorist radicalization.

Lister spent the early part of his terrorism expert testimony explaining the Syrian conflict and Arab Spring to jurors, and how these violent disputes gave opportunity for groups like ISIS to bolster recruitment and expand their terrorist network.  After a short break, Lister continued his testimony by focusing on the extreme levels of violence and brutality which ISIS uses to advance its ideological mission of world domination.  During his testimony, Lister explained the core tenets of ISIS, discussed the organization’s aggressive recruitment strategy, and identified symbols of the organization.  Importantly, Lister also pointed out that because ISIS has been designated a terrorist organization, it is illegal to have any relationship or contact of any kind with the network.

Lister’s three hour testimony with prosecutors concluded with the terrorism expert explaining the types of actions people who join ISIS engage in, and the allure the organization has on young Islamic men in the United States.  After he was finished with the prosecutors, defense attorneys spent the afternoon questioning him on cross examination.

Attorneys for Accused Minnesota Terrorists Question Prosecution Expert

Attorneys for the defendants took turns questioning the prosecution’s terrorism expert after the state was finished speaking with him.  The thrust of the defense seemed to be twofold: first to highlight how the complex situation is in Syria blurs the lines between good and bad; and second to question whether actions like the defendants’ really suggest conspiracy to join terrorist activities.  Defense attorneys had Lister explain that not every group in Syria which opposes the existing government is a terrorist network, suggesting that the defendants were not necessarily plotting to join a terrorist group just because they were planning to go to Syria.

Defense attorneys also questioned Lister about whether or not exposure to ISIS recruitment videos and materials meant radicalization.  Lister admitted that not everyone who watches ISIS propaganda is a terrorist before court adjourned for the day. The trial of the Minnesota men linked to a plot to leave America and join ISIS in Syria is expected to continue for several weeks as prosecutors attempt to prove that the defendants were part of a growing radicalization movement which warrants state and federal investigation.

Boston Marathon Bomber Trial Features Terrorism Expert Witness

This week the high profile trial of suspected Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev featured expert witness testimony from a counter-terrorism expert called by prosecutors.  Defense attorneys representing Tsarnaev countered the terrorism expert with a vigorous cross-examination accusing him of portraying the defendant as a terrorist in order to sensationalize the trial and prejudice jurors.  Tsarnaev faces the death penalty if convicted for his actions to bomb the 2013 Boston Marathon.

Accused Boston Marathon Bomber on Trial

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is accused of conspiring with his brother to plant two pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, has pled not guilty to the more than 30 counts against him, including murder and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction to cause death, faces the death penalty if convicted. Dzhokhar and his older brother, Tamerlan, became the prime suspects immediately after the two bombs exploded during the 2013 marathon, killing three people and wounding more than 260.  Tamerlan died from wounds sustained during a subsequent shootout with police, but Dzhokhar was apprehended after being found hiding in a boat in the Boston area.

Over the last two years, police and prosecutors have gathered evidence to accuse Dzhokhar of over 30 counts of murder, attempted murder, terrorism, and conspiracy to cause death using weapons of mass destruction.  After a lengthy jury selection process, the guilt phase of Dzhokhar’s trial is underway and expected to rest later this week.  Depending on the verdict, prosecutors will then pursue the death penalty during a separate sentencing phase of the trial using the same group of jurors.  Using an expert witness to identify Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a terrorist will not only aid the prosecution during the guilt phase of the trial, but will also provide an argument for aggravating circumstances that warrants consideration of the death penalty.

Prosecution Expert Witness Identifies Terrorist Behavior in Marathon Bomber

Earlier this week, prosecutors in the Boston Marathon bombing trial called Matthew Levitt, a terrorism expert at the Washington DC think tank The Washington Institute.  The Washington Institute analyzes United States policy in the Middle East, and Levitt has established himself as an expert in terrorist activities and ideals.  Levitt’s primary role in the trial was to examine a note written by Tsarnaev as he hid inside a boat while hiding from authorities after the marathon bombing.  The note, which is written in pencil on the wood lining the inside of the boat, criticized US activities in Muslim countries, asked Allah to make him a “Shaheed” (martyr), and included the phrase, “We Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all.”

While taking the stand as a terrorism expert witness, Levitt told jurors that the themes in Tsarnaev’s note are common among members of the global jihadi movement and echo ideas found lectures given by Anwar al-Awlaki – an American-born member of radical Islam with links to al-Qaida who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.  Prosecutors argue that Tsarnaev’s note makes it clear that he and his brother saw the attack as a means of retaliation against US policy in the Middle East, and Levitt’s expert testimony supported the claim that the brothers “twisted Islamic principles” in a manner consistent with organizations defined as terrorists in the US.  Levitt’s terrorism expert witness testimony supplemented evidence gathered by the FBI from Tsarnaev’s computer and home that the prosecution has used to argue the defendant is an extremist who engaged in terroristic activities.

Defense Accuses Terrorism Expert Witness of Sensationalizing Case

Defense attorneys for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have conceded that he was involved with the marathon bombing in 2013, but have argued that he was driven by the will of his older brother Tamerlan who planned the attack.  During cross-examination of the prosecution’s terrorism expert witness, Dzhokhar’s defense team criticized Levitt for attempting to sensationalize the trial by painting their client as a radical Muslim extremist, prejudicing the jurors against him.  Accusing Levitt of an opportunist who was looking to gain notoriety by testifying in a high profile trial, Tsarnaev’s defense team pried into the terrorism expert’s claims that the defendant was a radical extremist and not simply a teenager who was heavily influenced by his brother’s ideals.

The defense, which seems primarily focused on avoiding the death penalty, attempted to neutralize, or minimize, Levitt’s terrorism expert opinion by attacking his motives for taking the stand during the trial.  While not an uncommon strategy when cross-examining expert witnesses, defense attorneys will likely need to bolster their position that Dzhokhar was simply an accomplice to his brother’s schemes with expert testimony of their own.  The trial will continue throughout the week as the defense takes center stage.