Mimesis Law
2 June 2020

Remorse Doesn’t Sell When You Tried To Be A Terrorist

November 18, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Not a lot of people are going to feel too bad reading about a harsh sentence for someone who tried to join ISIS, even if they did say they were sorry. What federal Judge Michael Davis did is hardly controversial. Plus, he wasn’t buying the apology anyway:

A Minnesota man described as a leader of a group of nine who plotted to travel to Syria to fight for the Islamic State group was sentenced to 35 years in prison Wednesday by a federal judge who said he didn’t believe the man’s tearful apologies and words of contrition.

Two other members of what U.S. District Judge Michael Davis repeatedly called a “terrorist cell” — Mohamed Farah and Abdirahman Daud, both 22 — were sentenced earlier Wednesday to 30 years in prison apiece. But Guled Omar, 22, drew the longest sentence of the nine defendants who appeared before Davis this week.

Short of murder and rape, crimes the defendants may well have gone on to commit had they succeeded in making it to Syria and joining ISIS, there are few things a person can do that are worse than becoming a terrorist. Accordingly, there are few things that would merit a stricter sentence.

If you’re caught doing something like that, you can’t exactly claim it was a momentary lapse in judgment. You’d planned over time to travel across the world, after all. It wasn’t like they didn’t know what ISIS is or what it does. They’d gone to substantial lengths to join it. An argument that they didn’t know what they were doing wouldn’t pass a straight-face test.

It wasn’t like these guys tossed back a few cold ones at a bar and made a rash decision either. It’s doubtful substance abuse factored into the decision at all. These guys soberly decided to go out of their way to join pretty much the most evil organization on earth, one that would love nothing more than to see the complete destruction of the United States. It wasn’t a heat of the moment decision provoked by some sort of trauma. They bought into an evil ideology and took steps to join a group that promotes it.

Judge Davis was no doubt thinking about that when he ignored a pretty darn good sentencing statement from the defendant:

“I understand the seriousness of what I’ve been convicted of, and I understand that I will not be able to go home anytime soon,” Omar told the judge as he awaited his sentence, which ended up being less than the 40 years prosecutors sought. “I always had energy for justice as a young man but I lost my way.”

Omar’s statement sent his mother in the gallery into sobbing uncontrollably while other family members left the courtroom to collect their emotions. Davis didn’t buy it.

“Everything you have said here, I don’t believe,” Davis said.

When I’ve stood next to people who’ve expressed that they understand the wrongfulness of their conduct as their mothers sobbed in the galley, I’ve often wondered how a judge could then go on to hand down a brutal sentence. I haven’t seen it that many times, but it can be due to an obvious lack of sincerity from the client and the family. It’s the same effect when it’s the fiftieth time the judge has seen the same person in front of him for the same thing, with the same emotional family members promising it’ll never happen again. How many times can someone say they finally realize the seriousness of the situation before you start to think they’re never going to realize anything?

Sometimes, as is probably the case with these defendants, the crime itself is going to make a judge doubt whether the person making a statement really means any of it at all. Plus, if there are any circumstances likely to encourage false penitence, it’s a criminal sentencing. That fact isn’t lost on the prosecutor:

“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. He has blood on his hands,” Winter said.

A jury convicted Omar, Farah and Daud in June of conspiring to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and conspiracy to commit murder outside the U.S. Prosecutors said the plot involved of a group of friends in the state’s large Somali community who inspired each other to join the militant group. Some of their friends made it to Syria, but the nine who were caught did not.

Everyone in the system is backed into a corner. It’s just how it works. In fact, it’s also why it works, though claiming it “works” at all requires a liberal interpretation of what the word “works” means. If “works” equals “convictions,” then sure.

This situation also highlights an interesting inconsistency in prosecutors’ cynicism regarding defendants’ remorse:

Six other defendants, who pleaded guilty instead of going to trial, were sentenced Monday and Tuesday to terms ranging from time served to 15 years, with long terms of supervised release for all. The two who cooperated with federal investigators got the lightest sentences.

The prosecutor probably wasn’t the same one who argued at all of those other sentencings, especially the ones where the defendants got the lightest sentences, that those defendants’ acceptance of responsibility by pleading prior to trial and whatever cooperation they offered after being charged constituted false contrition. They likely didn’t say it was manipulative or deceitful, and any acts resulting on blood on anyone’s hands seem to be the same for all of the defendants.

People who realize they should pleaded right away, or who snitched, don’t have any less reason to feign regret. In fact, they may have more. It normally works out best that way, something demonstrated here. Prosecutors, however, are experts at pretending that isn’t the case. The pureness of a defendant’s motives is often directly proportionate to the amount of effort that defendant’s actions save the prosecutor.

Some of the defendant’s statements were fascinating, though probably not to the judge:

“I’m certainly not being persecuted for my faith. I was certainly not entrapped,” Daud said, hanging his head. “I was not going there to pass out medical kits or food. I was going strictly to fight and kill on behalf of the Islamic State.’

Farah, whose 20-year-old brother, Adan Farah, was sentenced Tuesday to 10 years in prison, told Davis he now disavows terrorist groups and realizes they don’t stand for peace.

“We ended up on a road nobody expected,” Farah said. “Your honor, that’s the allure and the dangers of terrorism.”

There’s something curious about the intersection of cultures in a case like this. Discussing “the allure and the dangers” of something almost every person in this country despises and views as readily-apparent evil-incarnate is not going to come off well. Even thinking that a Muslim judgen or maybe someone who was raised some place ISIS wasn’t viewed as quite as evil might be responsive to such an argument, would be making a huge mistake. A defendant would have about as much luck discussing the allure and dangers of child pornography to a judge he knew didn’t have kids. Admitting terrorism had allure is never going to turn out well. What’s to say they won’t jump on the next alluring trend that may end in the death of innocent American men, women, and children?

The judge tried to explain that his sentence was not based on religion or community:

Davis, who has handled all of Minnesota’s terror conspiracy cases, said the resilience and vibrancy of Minnesota’s Somali-American community has made the state stronger and that the sentences he handed down were not an indictment of the community.

“I will fight anyone who says Islam is a dirty religion or one of violence. It is not,” Davis said. “I’ve been stern and harsh in my sentencing for good reason, which is to incapacitate this cell.”

Honestly, if a judge is going to give someone three decades in prison, incapacitation seems like the best reason possible. It isn’t based on reading the tea leaves of remorse, divining whether it’s genuine or not. It isn’t based on what they deserved for joining some organization people here hold in great contempt, or the effect throwing the book at them is likely to have on others who’ll never read a news story in their life about the sentences people got for trying to become terrorists.

Sentencing is ugly business, but that observation is nothing new. It’s especially ugly when even being associated with a certain offense makes you look like the worst of the worst.

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  • Anon
    18 November 2016 at 12:54 pm - Reply

    “We ended up on a road nobody expected….Your honor, that’s the allure and the dangers of terrorism.”

    That (pointing the finger anywhere other than at one’s self) is the opposite of remorse, which should sound more like “*I* chose a path that anyone who’s not a resent-filled, egotistical shit-bag projecting their personal angst and resentment on society ought to have clearly seen was the wrong way.” A defendant can’t play the “bending the map” card† without first acknowledging it was his own personal declination, and not outside interference, that screwed-up his moral compass.

    Incidentally, CDLs defending terrorism cases might consider how many federal judges have something like John Updike’s “Terrorist” and Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” in mind when it comes to understanding the worldview of the modern wannabe Islamist terrorist.

    †”Bending the map,” incidentally, is an underutilized framework for defendants, especially many of white-collar variety, to explain themselves at sentencing. It can be pretty persuasive, assuming the defendant honestly reflects upon his motivations, without special pleading or a conceptual apparatus that obscures introspection.