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Guled Omar: The path to ISIS and the story you haven't heard

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Saturday December 24, 2016
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Two sides of Guled Omar: A mugshot provided by Hennepin County in April 2015, and his Facebook profile in June 2014. Hennepin County Sheriff, Omar family
Federal prosecutors have deemed him unfixable. Irredeemable. A man with blood on his hands.

Out of the nine young Twin Cities men who were sentenced last month as part of the nation's largest ISIS conspiracy case, Guled Omar, who was at one point the group's leader, received the harshest penalty — a prison sentence of 35 years.

He may also be the most complex figure among his friends, a potentially dangerous stew of charisma and cunning.

But to Omar and the people who believe in him, it was his sense of idealism and empathy, along with his troubled past, that drove him to want to join a terror group notorious for its cold-blooded executions.
The 22-year-old former security guard and community college student said he is still absorbing the gravity of his sentence, as well as the characterizations portrayed of him in the courtroom.

"I don't understand, what is irredeemable about me?" Omar said to MPR News during a series of phone calls from the Sherburne County jail. "I feel like people see a whole different person than who I am."

In his first interview since his arrest in April 2015, Omar acknowledged a traumatic childhood fraught with abuse, drug binges, and feelings of shame that he said ultimately made him vulnerable to radicalization.

Court documents filed by his attorney state that as a 9-year-old boy, Omar witnessed violence against his mother. His father then abandoned the family.

That's when Omar says he went from an observer of violence to a victim.
Over two years, from ages 9 to 11, Omar said he suffered various forms of abuse, including whippings. He declined to disclose details, saying his own family members were in the dark about it, and it was not reported to authorities.


At least some of the abuse, in the form of lasting scars, has been verified. A probation officer evaluating Omar's case before sentencing confirmed in a court document that he had "numerous dark, permanent welts across his back."

On top of that, Omar, who was born in a Kenyan refugee camp and came to the United States when he was 2, also saw how Somalia's civil war continued to haunt his family. As one of 13 children, he remembers comforting his mother in the middle of the night after she woke up screaming from nightmares.

Washing away 'impurities'

As Omar moved into his teen years, he said he wanted to bury that pain.

"It was about me trying to be a better Muslim, trying to be a better person in the eyes of everyone else, but I constantly felt like I had downfalls," he said. "I constantly felt like I had impurities within myself."

It wasn't just the abuse that made him feel isolated. In late 2007, when he was 13, his older brother Ahmed Ali Omar was one of the first young Twin Cities men to leave for Somalia to allegedly join the terrorist group al-Shabab.
Five years later, prosecutors allege Omar tried to follow in his brother's footsteps when he went to the Twin Cities airport hoping to fly to Nairobi, Kenya. FBI agents were waiting for him and wouldn't let him board the plane.

To this day, Guled Omar has no idea whether his fugitive brother is alive or dead.

Nearly a decade ago, that story of Americans enlisting with a ghastly terror group drew scorn and scrutiny onto the nation's largest Somali-American community.

Even some local Somalis were blaming one another. At the Minneapolis mosque where his family worshipped, Omar, then still just a boy, said he felt his own community recoil.

"If anything, I was shunned away from everybody else. People stayed away from me," he said. "Nobody came to my family and counseled my mother, or me, or any of my brothers or sisters and talk to us about how to understand it or how to move on."

By the time Omar was a sophomore at South High School in Minneapolis, he tried marijuana. "The first time I smoked weed," he said, "I felt like a man. I had a lot of confidence to talk about whatever I wanted to."

Eventually, he was getting high several days a week, experimenting with cocaine and regularly using Percocet and other drugs, according to a court document filed by his attorney. He also recalls being targeted by peers at school, who derided him for the way he dressed and smelled.
But the drugs that once liberated him brought on a new set of emotions. He felt shame and a sense of being "unclean," he said. In his late teens and early 20s, Omar recalls he was in a state of internal conflict.

It was around this time he and his friends started learning about the atrocities in Syria by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Omar said. The young Twin Cities men eventually fell for ISIS and its simple promise to restore the lives of once-wayward Muslims.


Angry and disillusioned about the conflict in Syria, the young men wanted to air their grievances, but the mosque that Omar and his friends attended discouraged talk of politics. Omar said that pushed their discussions underground.

"When I hear these videos, all this propaganda, and it's telling you who a real man is — that this is what the companions of the Prophet would do — you want to be such a better person," he said. "You feel something's wrong with you constantly that you have to do something so big."

Omar insists he wasn't drawn to the violence of ISIS, even though he could be heard in audio recordings played during the trial boasting of wanting to kill people who stood in his way.
He said the trauma he experienced in his own life made him more empathetic to other people's oppression.

"I'm not infatuated by guns, by people being killed, beheadings and these kinds of things," he said. "It's more about the people you're seeing and the hurt they're going through."

No single path to extremism

The emotional and physical trauma Omar experienced growing up does not explain his decision to try to travel to Syria to become a foot soldier for the Islamic State.

Researchers readily admit there's not a single path to extremism, nor a shopping list of characteristics that can predict who will become an extremist. And most victims of trauma do not go on to traumatize others.
But studies show that harmful childhood experiences are common among those drawn to such movements.

Pete Simi, a sociology professor at Chapman University in California, has studied the life histories of white supremacists as part of his work with the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. He said as researchers asked these former extremists about their upbringing, a familiar pattern started to emerge.

"We began to note pretty quickly that we were seeing a lot of descriptions of childhood trauma — physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect — just lots of different dysfunction," Simi said. "What we found really does parallel with what we already know about juvenile delinquency, violent offenders, and gang members."

For these set of extremists, the early instability sets the table for what some psychologists call a "quest for significance."

And while violent ideology is important to the radicalization process, that comes later as a coping mechanism, Simi said.

"You start to feel insignificant, you start to blame yourself for being a victim of child abuse and sexual abuse," he said. "What the extremist group offers is the idea of becoming part of something important. Coming into that fold can be very attractive to someone who's lost and flailing about."
Some counterterrorism experts, however, caution that childhood trauma is not necessarily a precursor for terrorism.

John Horgan, a Georgia State University professor of global studies and psychology, said empathy is more prevalently found in radicalized individuals than personal adversity.

"The clearest evidence we can see is that identifying with the trauma and suffering of others is a key recruitment and radicalization tool used by groups to pull people in," Horgan said. "There's no doubt about it. Involvement in terrorism requires you to mobilize because of your outrage and the suffering of other people, with which you identify."

A price for being likable

Omar said he's repented his old ways and wants to be a positive voice for his community. But here's the problem that many of his skeptics can't forget: He has contradicted himself many, many times.

"Make no mistake, this defendant is extraordinarily dangerous," Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Winter said at Omar's sentencing hearing in November. "Only when backed into a corner does he attempt to offer false contrition. You can't fix manipulative. You can't fix deceitful. And you can't fix Guled Omar."
Winter also argued that Omar must pay for the friends who he helped send into battlefields in Syria.

"He's got blood on his hands for people he's helped to get overseas who are dead," Winter said.

Some of the most emotional testimony at his trial last spring came when Omar took the stand in his defense. He was the only one out of the three defendants to testify.
His rueful remarks, in which he struggled to finish his sentences through tears, drew a chorus of sobs from family members in the courtroom gallery.

A similar display of emotions ensued at his sentencing hearing last month. Omar apologized for his actions, describing it as "an ugly, horrible path, and I never want to return to it."

U.S. District Judge Michael Davis didn't buy it.

The judge detailed how Omar repeatedly lied to his family about his true intention to travel, even after knowing how his older brother's similar path to terrorism tore apart the family. And after Omar's family members thwarted a road trip to California, which prosecutors alleged was the first leg of Omar's trip to Syria, he continued to plot his way to ISIS, Davis said.

"Everything you have said here, I don't believe," said Davis, before ordering Omar to 35 years in prison.
Davis went on to say it was in part because Omar was so likable that he needed to pay a steep price and be incapacitated.

"You're charismatic, and that's why you're being locked up for the time that you are," Davis said.

Evidence presented by prosecutors showed Omar drew others into the conspiracy, provided contacts for friends trying to get to Syria, and wanted to route ISIS fighters through Mexico and into the United States.

In his testimony at trial, Omar also offered alternative theories as to why he wanted to travel to California, including wanting to see a girl he met online and to celebrate his first year in college.

But the most damaging evidence against him was likely his own words, which were captured on tape by a friend in the conspiracy who started working as a secret FBI informant. Audio recordings played at trial revealed Omar boasted that he would kill Turkish security guards at the Syrian border. He has insisted that the talk was meaningless banter among friends.

'Why couldn't you tell us to stay away?'

Omar will be shipped off to a new facility, most likely after the start of the year.

He and his co-defendants Mohamed Farah and Abdirahman Daud — who both received prison sentences of 30 years — are appealing their convictions. Omar declined to discuss any details about the case that could affect his appeal.

But he is not silent about a poisonous ISIS narrative that he said once consumed him.

"I don't want anyone to be conflicted, pulled toward a calling that is not even real," he said. "That's why I talk to a lot of my friends and tell them to stay away from these kinds of ideology, or [those] who believe in hate, or who believe in this whole notion of 'us versus them.'"
Still, he remains critical of the investigation that led to his arrest, as well as a lack of programs to dissuade young people from progressing toward extremist movements.

Omar said federal authorities should have met with his family and community leaders to deter him and his friends from trying to leave the country as part of a more restorative approach, rather than a straight-up interrogation.

"If that intervention would have happened, I would not be sitting where I am today," he said. "We were confused and conflicted. We were just trying to figure out a way to fit in life. Sometimes we're talked about in this case as if we were grown men who experienced so much in life. But the truth of the fact was, we were 18 and 19 years old."

He also struggles to understand how his friend who was deep into the conspiracy, Abdirahman Bashir, could have decided to turn on the group and collect evidence against the young men for the government.

"If you felt this was wrong," he said, "why couldn't you tell us to stay away from this?"
Over the past few months, Omar has found a friend in a familiar face from his former school.

Matthew Palombo, a philosophy professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and adviser to the school's Muslim student association, visits Omar in jail regularly and sends him books on topics ranging from Malcolm X to the Socratic dialogues.

In return, Omar mails pictures that he's drawn for Palombo's young daughters.

Palombo is encouraging Omar to write a memoir about his experiences. He also believes Omar can shed light on some of the problems with the nation's counterterrorism efforts and mass incarceration.

"I'm incredibly optimistic about what he can do," said Palombo. "In 10 or 20 years, no one will think of him as a terrorist. They'll think of him as a leader, an activist and an inspiring voice for change."

And yet for others, the question of whether Omar and others like him can be rehabilitated is still an open one.
"We need to be very careful to avoid the assumption that everyone can be de-radicalized," said Horgan, the Georgia State University professor. "Where and when precisely did he have this change of heart? If it happened the night before sentencing, that doesn't speak to him being genuine. But if this disillusionment was starting to creep in and was known prior to apprehension, it might tell a different story."

Omar said he's been reforming himself ever since his arrest nearly two years ago. But given his past, he understands why some might not believe him today when he says he's a changed man.

"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 a someone's life," he said. "All in all, I've never hurt anybody, I've never killed anybody, I've never murdered anybody. But the way I was talked to, that's how I was portrayed to be. People should give me a chance."

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