MINNEAPOLIS - A Twin Cities man who federal authorities say may have been the ringleader of a group young radicals intent on supporting Islamic State terrorists pleaded guilty to conspiring to join ISIS on Thursday.
According to his federal indictment, Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame, 20, and nine others schemed to travel to Syria and fight alongside ISIS terrorists.
In his guilty plea, Warsame admitted to becoming the leader of the group in May 2014, and to recruiting others to the cause.
At a hearing in December, the FBI revealed it had recorded Warsame telling an associate that he knew how to make rocket-propelled grenades and had the materials to do at his home.
The FBI also revealed that Warsame had been monitoring the arrival and departure of flights at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and for a time even worked at the facility, which is the 16th busiest airport in the United States.
An airport spokesperson later confirmed Warsame was employed by integrated Deicing at the airport from Dec. 2013 to April 2014, and that between April and August, 2014, he worked for Swissport, an aircraft fueling company at the facility.
On Thursday, Warsame appeared before U.S. District Judge Michael Davis with his attorney, Robert Sicoli.
U.S. Attorney Andrew Winter represented the government.
Warsame, wearing a forest green prison jumpsuit and orange sandals, smiled and acknowledged family members who were sitting in a designated area.
Once the hearing got underway, the two attorneys presented Judge Davis with the seven-page plea agreement and sentencing stipulation.
As they did so, David repeatedly addressed Warsame, stressing the importance of his knowing and understanding his rights.
At one point he even asked Warsame to find his own name in the pleading.
When the accused stated that it was not there, Davis said, "My duty is to make sure you understand your constitutional rights."
Later, Davis stopped Winter from assisting Warsame in detailing his involvement with ISIS, saying he wanted to hear the words out of Warsame's "own mouth."
During his testimony, Warsame said he and all of his co-conspirators five of whom are scheduled to be tried in May planned for more than a year to become ISIS fighters, and that they knew and accepted the fact that would mean killing others.
"I would be engaging in combat," he said.
Davis asked what combat meant, and Warsame answered, "beheading, fighting, weapons."
Later, Davis asked him if he had ever picked up a gun or killed an animal. Warsame answered "No." to both questions.
He said he and the others wanted to join ISIS because they believed the group is fighting for the rights of oppressed Muslims.
Warsame explained what attracted him to the Islamic State was being able "to go to war and fight and bring back the Khalifa." Warsame also said "It was a duty to go and help innocent people from the oppression."
As for traveling to Syria, Warsame said, "We talked about ways to get documents to travel and how to financially make it work."
He told the court that he applied for an expedited passport and lied on the passport application, claiming that his plans were to go to Australia and to be with his family.
Warsame said that he "actually planned to go to Turkey and then Syria."
Warsame explained that he started learning about Islam through propaganda videos on YouTube. He says he was radicalized by the videos not by the mosques in Minnesota. When Davis asked what was shown on these videos, Warsame stated "they showed all parts of the world that were joining ISIS ... to stop the oppression of disbelievers."
Warsame stated that he began watching these propaganda videos when he was between 17 and 18 years old, first watching Al-Shaab videos and then moving on to ISIS videos. After watching the videos, he and others would talk about how to "take action."
When asked if any of the videos showed killings, Warsame said, "Yes. Some of the videos showed the Iraqi Army and the Syrian Army being killed by ISI[S]."
Sicoli, who met with Warsame 10 times in the Anoka County jail prior to the hearing, asked his how his opinion of ISIS has changed over time.
Warsame said he's come to believe the Islamic State terrorists are "killing too much people," and was particularly troubled after it "burned a man alive."
Warsame said he knew his plan to join ISIs would get him in trouble so he kept it secret from his family, including his siblings whose ages range from 22 to four years old.
Outside the courtroom, Warsame's mother told reporters she was "so happy" her son chose to tell the truth.
Other family members said because "young people are impressionable" they are urging people in their community "to know what is really going on in your household that you don't know."
National Public Radio reports that sources familiar with the case say Warsame could join his co-conspirator, Abdullahi Yusuf, in a de-radicalization program in the Twin Cities. However, it would need to be approved by the judge, NPR reports.
Judge Davis has not yet set a sentencing date for Warsame. Had he been tried and convicted on the terror charge, he could have faced up to 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.