A Minnesota man attended meetings in local mosques, parks and restaurants as he planned to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State group, he admitted in court Thursday, saying he wanted to join the violent terrorist group to help his fellow Muslims.
Zacharia Yusuf Abdurahman, 20, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist group — specifically the Islamic State group. He admitted that he and eight other men met 10 to 15 times to talk about routes to Syria and how to finance their trip.
He faces up to 15 years when he is sentenced; that date hasn't been set.
Abdurahman is the third Minnesota man to plead guilty in connection with planning travel to Syria. Five others face a February trial.
Authorities have described the men from Minnesota's Somali community as friends who recruited and inspired each other. Prosecutors say the men were advised from overseas by Abdi Nur, another Minnesota man who went to Syria in May 2014.
The Minneapolis area is home to the largest concentration of Somali immigrants in the U.S., and the community has been a target for terror recruiters: more than 22 men have left the state since 2007 to join al-Shabab in Somalia, and roughly a dozen people have left to join jihadist groups in Syria.
Abdurahman said Thursday that he began thinking about going to Syria in the spring of 2014 after he saw how the Syrian people were suffering at the hands of the Bashar Assad regime. Abdurahman said he saw videos of elderly parents and kids pleading for help from Muslims, and felt he had an obligation because "it is a worse sin to not listen to their cries," he said.
He also said he watched English-language jihadist videos on YouTube, Twitter and other social media outlets, and wanted to join the Islamic State group even though he knew it carried out beheadings and burned prisoners.
Abdurahman said he and some of his co-conspirators took buses to New York last November and tried to travel overseas from there. After they were stopped and returned to Minnesota, he said he tried to obtain a fake passport as a means of going to Mexico, then overseas.
He provided a picture for a passport to one group member, who was actually an FBI informant, and took it back shortly before his arrest because "I thought I was going to get caught," he said.
Attorneys for many of the defendants have questioned the government's use of an informant, and community members have claimed the men were entrapped. Abdurahman said he wasn't entrapped and that there was a plan in motion before the informant got involved.
Ayan Abdurahman said after her son's hearing that she was "very sad" and that he and others like him are just children.
"He's very young," she said, speaking in broken English. "... I asking the American government they have to treat these as children. They make mistake."
She also said she's opposed to what her son says he did, and added that the government, Somali community, mosques and parents need to work together to find other options and promote peace.
Ikraan Abdurahman, Zacharia's sister, asked that people see her brother for who he is, not for how the media portrays him.
"A mistake doesn't define a person and he's an excellent, honest and virtuous human being," she said.