MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A Minnesota man who faces terrorism-related charges once boasted that he was capable of building rockets that could threaten planes landing at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and also once worked at the airport as a baggage handler, an FBI agent testified Tuesday.
FBI Special Agent Daniel Higgins spoke at a hearing for Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame, 20, of Eagan. Warsame was the 10th young man from Minnesota’s Somali community to be charged since April with terrorism-related counts accusing them of plotting to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State group. He was arrested and charged Dec. 9 with one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and one count of providing such support.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Becky Thorson ruled there was probable cause to support the charges, and that Warsame should not be released because he’s a flight risk and danger to the community. The case now goes to a grand jury where prosecutors will seek an indictment so they can proceed to trial.
Three of the other defendants have pleaded guilty, while five are scheduled to go on trial in May. The FBI says one is in Syria.
Higgins’ testimony added details that weren’t in the criminal complaint against Warsame, which included an affidavit from another FBI agent, Vadym Vinetsky, who wrote that Warsame was appointed “emir,” or leader of the local group, by Guled Ali Omar, who was planning to leave for Syria but was thwarted and is now among those awaiting trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Winter told the court Warsame’s time as emir was brief, but it showed his leadership role in the alleged conspiracy, helping one defendant with money for an expedited passport and helping another alleged co-conspirator make contact with Islamic State facilitators in Turkey.
Recordings secretly made by an FBI informant included a conversation Warsame had with Omar about weapons, Higgins said. They discussed a propaganda video about a “tank hunter” who used rocket-propelled grenades. “The defendant indicated he would like to take such a role and said he quote, loved RPGs,” he testified.
In another conversation recorded by the informant, while walking around Lake Nokomis, which is under one of the airport’s main flight paths, Warsame said he could build “homemade rockets” that could reach 2,000 feet, Higgins testified. He suggested that was enough to hit a descending plane.
And from April to August of 2014, Warsame worked as a baggage handler at the airport “with access to the airplanes,” Higgins testified.
Under cross-examination from defense attorney Robert Sicoli, Higgins acknowledged that he wasn’t aware of any evidence that Warsame ever tried to build such a rocket. Sicoli then asked why, if Warsame was such a threat, authorities didn’t arrest him earlier. Higgins replied that that decision wasn’t up to him.
The agent also acknowledged that he wasn’t aware of Warsame doing anything suspicious, planting bombs or doing anything else illegal at the airport.
“The only reason detention is being recommended in this case is the politics of the situation, Sicoli later argued, which drew an indignant denial from Winter.
“I want to make it clear that the court is not making a decision about politics,” Thorson said as she issued her rulings, saying they were based on the evidence and the law.
About a dozen Minnesota residents have traveled to Syria to join jihadist groups since late 2013. In addition, more than 22 young men from Minnesota’s Somali community have left the state since 2007 to join the Islamic extremist group al-Shabab in Somalia.
Higgins’ testified that investigators determined that Warsame planned to travel to with his family to Somalia, then either break free of them and travel from there to Syria, or to wait in Somalia for a time when he believed al-Shabab would join forces with the Islamic State group.