Terror Convict Completes Sentence, But Former Feds Warn Against Deporting Him

Somali immigrant trained to be a terrorist, was imprisoned, but can't go home.

February 5, 2015, 5:23 PM
PHOTO: An ICE van carrying Isse readies to depart a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility in Rochester, Minn., Feb. 5, 2015.
Upon completing his three-year sentence in a federal terrorism case, 31-year-old Abdifatah Isse was immediately transferred into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and placed into deportation proceedings. An ICE van carrying Isse readies to depart a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility in Rochester, Minn., Feb. 5, 2015.
Rob Hess/ABC News

— -- It’s an ironic notion: The U.S. government could put national security at risk in certain cases not by failing to go after terrorism suspects, but by going after them too aggressively.

That’s the concern of former law enforcement officials who were shocked to hear that a Somali immigrant who admitted to training with terrorists overseas may now be deported after helping the government unravel a global terrorist pipeline. He completed his federal sentence just today.

"Abdifatah Yusuf Isse has been transferred to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] custody and will be detained pending the outcome of his removal proceedings before an immigration judge," an ICE spokesman said in a statement today, minutes after Isse was taken from Justice Department handcuffs and put into handcuffs from the Department of Homeland Security.

The 31-year-old, a legal permanent resident in the United States, could stay in ICE custody for another three months. Any non-U.S. citizen who commits a felony always faces the prospect of deportation.

But placing Isse in deportation proceedings “is short-sighted,” and ultimately deporting him to his native Somalia would put “his life in jeopardy, and it could have a chilling effect on the U.S. having cooperation in terrorism cases in the future,” said former federal prosecutor W. Anders Folk, who put Isse behind bars.

Ralph Boelter, a former FBI official who helped lead the investigation into the terrorist pipeline, agreed Isse’s deportation might serve as “a disincentive” for future terrorism suspects to cooperate. And one current U.S. official acknowledged important issues are now “at stake.”

But two other current officials suggested any such concern is unwarranted, saying federal law requires convicts like Isse to be placed into removal proceedings. They predicted Isse will “probably” be allowed to stay in the U.S. once an immigration judge looks at the facts of the case.

Isse became one of three key witnesses for the government as it tried to figure out how about 20 Somali men from Minnesota were recruited to join al Qaeda’s offshoot in Somalia, al-Shabab. The three ultimately testified in court against one of the men who recruited them, sending him to prison for 20 years.

Promising to cooperate but knowing he could face deportation, Isse pleaded guilty to one count of “providing material support” to terrorists and was sentenced to three years in prison – a sentence that ended today. The charge he pleaded guilty to carries a maximum sentence of 15 years behind bars.

According to Folk, if Isse were to now be deported, future terrorism suspects arrested by federal authorities would likely think: “Why would I want to cooperate if at the end of that, I’m going to get sent back to live among the people that I cooperated against?”

Instead of offering a message like that, Folk said, Isse’s case could very well become “a story of salvation” – one where he made “a terrible choice” but “found a way to recover from it” and become an “upstanding” member of American society.

Though he knew “nothing” about al-Shabab, Isse agreed to fight with them in 2007 after Ethiopian forces moved into Somalia to support the fledgling government there, he later testified. He wanted “to make” the “invaders” leave, he recalled.

Isse knew he might kill others, and he might be killed himself.

“I was brainwashed in terms of the whole ideology of fighting,” he testified. “I take full responsibility, though.”

In Somalia, Isse received what even prosecutors described as “limited training” on how to use weapons, and then he and other American recruits were brought to what was supposed to be a training camp.

Instead, it was a “deserted place” with no buildings and “a bunch of trees,” he later recalled. So he spent about a week “cutting down trees” and “cleaning up stuff” to “establish a training camp,” he said.

When one of the other Minnesotans, Salah Osman Ahmed, needed to seek medical treatment in a nearby city, Isse “seized an opportunity” to leave too, and both of them ultimately decided to wind their way back to the United States, Isse’s attorney wrote in court filings.

“I don’t think either of them in their own minds thought they would do anything against U.S. citizens,” Folk said of Isse and Ahmed’s time in Somalia.

Still, after returning to Seattle, where his family had settled a decade earlier as refugees from civil war in Somalia, Isse kept in contact with at least one al-Shabab operative. And after his arrest in February 2009, it took several months for him to start telling federal investigators everything he knew about the terrorist organization.

Ultimately, he and Ahmed both testified against Mahamud Said Omar, laying out the identities of al-Shabab leaders and detailing how Omar helped send the Minnesota men to al-Shabab.

Asked during the trial, “Are you a terrorist?” he answered simply: “No.”

Isse’s cooperation is the “clearest example” of the fact that Isse has “in a fundamental way broken” with the jihadist lifestyle and its beliefs, according to Folk.

But the decision to help the U.S. government carries significant challenges for Isse as he prepares to become a free man – wherever that may happen.

Some community members in Minneapolis or Seattle may take issue with his assistance to law enforcement, and matters could be even worse for him if he were deported to Somalia, according to current and former officials.

As one current law enforcement official put it: “Life expectancy is pretty short” for him in Somalia after his cooperation with the U.S. government.

Even if Isse is allowed to stay in the United States, the brand of being a terrorism suspect will “be very difficult for him to overcome,” Folk said.

But Folk urged the public to give Isse “the benefit of the doubt” and emphasized Isse’s case is “certainly different” than others who have linked up with terrorists.

“This is not Ramzi Yousef reintegrating into society,” said Boelter, referring to one of the men behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. There’s no reason to believe Isse poses any type of imminent threat, added Boelter, who was head of the FBI’s Minneapolis field office until April 2011.

If Isse is released into the U.S., he will be under “supervised release” for 20 years and barred from possessing a gun.

When asked at the 2012 trial why he decided to cooperate with the government, Isse responded in part: “I was looking for a second chance.”

An attorney representing Isse declined to comment for this article and declined requests to speak with Isse.

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