Listen: Once-leader in ISIS case says he's not irredeemable

MPR’s Laura Yuen profiles Guled Omar, a young man convicted of conspiring to kill people abroad for the Islamic State in Syria. As former leader of nine young Twin Cities men, Omar received 35 years in prison. Yuen talks with Omar in his first interview since arrest.


2016 MBJA Eric Sevareid Award, first place in Hard Feature - Large Market Radio category


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SPEAKER 1: Federal prosecutors have deemed a Minneapolis man unfixable, irredeemable, a man with blood on his hands. A jury agreed and convicted Guled Omar of conspiring to kill people abroad for the Islamic State in Syria. Out of the nine young Twin Cities men who were sentenced last month, Omar, the group's leader, received the harshest penalty, 35 years in prison. He spoke with our Laura Yuen from prison in his first interview since his arrest last year, and Omar told her he thinks there's much more to him than that.

SPEAKER 2: Hello. This is a free call from--

GULED OMAR: Guled Omar.

SPEAKER 2: --an inmate at--

SPEAKER 3: Sherburne County Jail.

SPEAKER 2: This call--

LAURA YUEN: Guled Omar just might be the most complex figure in Minnesota's ISIS radicalization case. And if you believe federal authorities, he's a dangerous stew of charisma and cunning. So it's not surprising when Omar sounds courteous and entirely at ease when he calls.

GULED OMAR: Good morning, Laura. How are you doing?

LAURA YUEN: Good. Good. Thanks for calling me. I really appreciate it.

GULED OMAR: Yeah, no problem. No problem. I appreciate you.

LAURA YUEN: Omar is 22. And for much of his life, his path was not unlike many of his Somali American peers. He was born in a Kenyan refugee camp and came to the US when he was a toddler.

Omar grew up in a big family of 13 kids raised by a single mom who fled Somalia's civil war. But Omar also says, he suffered abuse as a child. It occurred over two years, starting when he was nine.

A probation officer evaluating Omar's case before his sentencing confirmed in a court document that he had numerous dark permanent welts across his back. Omar didn't want to talk about the nature of the abuse or who did it, but he says it made him want to bury his pain. He was a sophomore in high school in Minneapolis when he first tried marijuana.

GULED OMAR: I was scared, I was paranoid the first time I did smoke weed. But I also felt like very strong. At the same time, I felt like a man.

LAURA YUEN: It wasn't just the abuse that made him feel overwhelmed, he says, the kids at school derided him and other Somalis making fun of the way they dressed and smelled. Just a few years ago, Omar spoke to reporters after he and hundreds of other South High School students got into a food fight. He says it erupted over a student who dumped milk on a Somali-American girl. In this video from the Star Tribune, Omar and his friends say they felt targeted.

GULED OMAR: We're the minority here. We're the ones who are about 10-15 students.


GULED OMAR: --we being attacked.

LAURA YUEN: The other student who you can also hear in the video happens to be Adnan Farah, another man charged with plotting with Omar to join ISIS. But the isolation Omar felt at school, he says, he also felt within his own Somali community. That's because his older brother Ahmed was one of the First Minnesota men to leave for the Horn of Africa allegedly to join al-Shabab. At the time, the idea that Americans would join a ghastly terrorism group overseas known for its suicide bombings drew national headlines, and even some local Somalis began to blame one another. Omar says after his brother was labeled a terrorist, people at his family's mosque began to recoil.

GULED OMAR: If anything, I was shunned away from everybody else. People stayed away from me. People didn't want to be around me. I was only 13-14 at that age. Nobody came to my family and counseled my mother or me or any of my brothers and sisters and talk to us about how to understand it or how to move on from it.

LAURA YUEN: This is a common theme when you talk to Omar. He talks about the isolation and the hardship and admits he lost his way. But he's quick to suggest that others could have done more to help him.

Omar eventually started getting high several times a week and dabbled in cocaine, but now he started to feel a new sensation. It was shame, like he wasn't a good Muslim. Researchers who've studied hate groups say people who are drawn to extremist movements commonly have suffered from abuse followed by cycles of self-blame.

But a more prevalent characteristic is empathy, identifying with the suffering of others. When Omar was in his late teens, he began to learn about the atrocities committed by the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. He says the plight of the Syrian people made him recall his own personal trauma.

GULED OMAR: It takes me back to then how helpless I felt and makes me feel all those feelings all over again.

LAURA YUEN: Omar says he also began to believe no one else seemed to care about the Syrian conflict. Elders at the mosque discouraged talk of political grievances, and it pushed his conversations with his friends underground. His group grew more confused and angry.

GULED OMAR: A lot of times what these propaganda videos chase after, they look for people who are in those kind of vulnerable stages who are asking themselves them questions. And they answer those questions for them.

LAURA YUEN: Omar says, he wasn't infatuated with beheadings. He empathized with the people who were hurt. But audio clips played at trial suggest Omar was willing to kill people who stood in his way.

A friend deep into the conspiracy who later started working as an FBI informant captured Omar and his friends on tape, and Omar's own voice became his most damning enemy at his trial. In this piece of audio, Omar is in a car. He tells the informant he'd kill Turkish security guards once he arrived at the Syrian border.

GULED OMAR: Once I'm there, [INAUDIBLE] It's is do or die, bro. I'm killing [BLEEP] bro. My life is [INAUDIBLE] [BLEEP] killing--

SPEAKER 4: Take a right.

GULED OMAR: [INAUDIBLE] if I'm in Turkey [INAUDIBLE] I'll kill them.

LAURA YUEN: Omar insists it was meaningless banter among friends. Federal authorities, however, point out Omar repeatedly lied to his family and tried again and again to make his way to Syria. Evidence presented at trial show he brought friends into the conspiracy, gave them contacts they would need in Syria, and wanted to route ISIS fighters through Mexico and into the US.

A prosecutor said at Omar's sentencing hearing that he was not redeemable, quote, "You can't fix deceitful, and you can't fix Guled Omar." In the courtroom, Omar wept as he apologized for his mistakes. But US District Judge Michael Davis told Omar, he didn't buy any of it. And Davis said it was because Omar was so charismatic that the judge felt he had to lock him up for decades.

And does he have a point? I mean, should we trust what you're saying?

GULED OMAR: I can see where some of the lack of trust can come from, but I cannot see how that can account to taking away 35 years of someone's life. All in all, I've never heard anybody. I've never killed anybody. I've never murdered anybody. But the way I was being talked to, that's how I was portrayed to be.

LAURA YUEN: Omar says people should give him a chance. He says he now wants to steer other young men from making the same mistakes he did.

GULED OMAR: So that these people with good intentions don't have to think that, OK, in order for God to be pleased with me, do I have to go and join these people?

JOHN HORGAN: We need to be very careful to avoid the assumption that everyone can be de-radicalized.

LAURA YUEN: Counterterrorism expert John Horgan of Georgia State University says the government should find a way to capture the contrition and disillusionment of extremists who've repented. But the question is, is an individual, like, Omar truly remorseful?

JOHN HORGAN: Key questions that I would be curious about would be, well, where and when precisely did he have this change of heart? If it happened the night before a sentencing, then, well, clearly that doesn't really speak to him being genuine.

LAURA YUEN: For his part, Guled Omar says, he's been reforming himself over the year and a half he's been in prison. Omar will likely be sent to a maximum security prison after the start of the year. And he's appealing his conviction. Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio News.


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