U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar has been the subject of intense scrutiny, as well as misinformation and junk news, on a national scale ever since she began her ultimately successful campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, made history in January 2019 as one of the first two Muslim women to serve in the U.S. Congress, and much of the criticism aimed at her by right-leaning observers has centered around her religious affiliation.
In late January 2019, the prolific right-leaning Twitter account @Education4Libs — a frequent source of factually-dubious, hyperpartisan content — claimed that Omar had been advocating for would-be Islamic extremist recruits to receive lighter prison sentences:
“Rep. Ilhan Omar wants lighter sentences for people who have been caught trying to join ISIS …” one of their tweets proclaimed:
Rep. Ilhan Omar wants lighter sentences for people who have been caught trying to join ISIS.
She also married her brother & was against a bill that increased penalties for female genital mutilation.
This is wrong. Sharia Law & the US Constitution CANNOT coexist.
— Educating Liberals (@Education4Libs) January 27, 2019
That claim came after several prominent right-leaning groups and commentators pointed to an episode from 2016, when Omar had just been elected a Minnesota State Representative, as reported in a 25 January Daily Caller article:
Back in 2016, Democratic Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar wrote a letter to a judge requesting a more lenient sentence on behalf of a Minnesota man who was accused of trying to join ISIS. Abdirahman Yasin Daud was one of two young men arrested in San Diego in April 2015. They were a part of a larger group of nine that was arrested for trying to join ISIS. Daud specifically was caught trying to buy fake passports in order to travel to Syria. Federal prosecutors requested Daud spend 30 years in prison followed by a lifetime of supervised release. Omar was one of the 13 people to write letters to Judge Michael Davis on Daud’s behalf.
Some of those who posted on Twitter about the episode made it clear that the events in question took place in the past, while others — including the conservative activist Candace Owens and discredited Twitter commentator Jacob Wohl — described them as if they were recent or ongoing:
Our new, Muslim congresswoman @IlhanMN, who was swore in by putting her hand over the Quran— is now pleading for leniency for men that are accused of joining ISIS.
Isn’t diversity just the BEST?!
Anybody who says it isn’t, is racist.https://t.co/ngEnoTzkg8
— Candace Owens (@RealCandaceO) January 26, 2019
Good God! Ilhan Omar, the congresswoman that Laura Loomer tried to warn up about, writes letter asking judge for “compassion” in ISIS recruit sentencing
She needs to resign! https://t.co/ky1J6hLsUp
— Jacob Wohl (@JacobAWohl) January 25, 2019
@Education4Libs went even further, suggesting not merely that Omar had once intervened in a specific case, or even that she had done so recently or in an ongoing case, but that she was promoting a general policy of “lighter sentences for people who have been caught trying to join ISIS.”
Rep. Omar has not consistently advocated a general policy of lighter sentences for would-be ISIS recruits, and she has consistently criticized and opposed Muslim extremism and radicalization. However, it is true that she did once ask a judge to pursue “a restorative approach to justice” rather than a “long-term prison sentence” in the case of one individual convicted of planning to take up arms with the terrorist organization.
Although her letter to the judge came in the context of one specific case, some of what she wrote appeared to indicate broader support for a general response to radicalization and terrorism which emphasized rehabilitation and leniency over long prison sentences, lending a degree of accuracy to the claim made by @Education4Libs.
In June 2016, a U.S. District Court jury in Minnesota convicted nine Somali-American men of multiple charges relating to their efforts to join and provide support to the Islamic State terrorist organization (ISIS), starting in 2014.
One of them, Abdurahman Yasin Daud, was found guilty on three counts: conspiracy to murder outside the United States, conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, and attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization.
Federal prosecutors presented evidence that Daud had been an active and enthusiastic participant in a conspiracy to travel to Syria and join ISIS in combat, watching and encouraging others to watch ISIS propaganda videos, as well as plotting and attempting to obtain fake travel documents and journey to the Middle East. Some of the Minnesota men involved in the conspiracy did ultimately join ISIS in Syria and were believed to have subsequently been killed in combat there.
In one court filing, the prosecution described Daud in the following terms:
Defendant was a committed, dedicated and enthusiastic member of this conspiracy, who was highly motivated to go to Syria, join ISIL, and perpetrate violence on that terrorist organization’s behalf. As discussed in more detail later, Defendant’s desire and dedication to becoming a terrorist for ISIL was most overtly exposed upon his apprehension in San Diego in April 2015 when he was attempting to obtain a fake passport. But long before Defendant’s arrest, Defendant hid in the shadows of the conspiracy – encouraging others to become fighters for ISIL and biding his time until he himself could leave to fight jihad1 in Syria. From the very beginning, Defendant was intimately involved with the group planning to fight for ISIL — participating in weekly meetings to discuss the situation in Syria, and ultimately, deciding that ISIL was his, and his co-defendant’s, chosen terrorist group.
Daud could have faced a sentence of life imprisonment, but prosecutors asked U.S. District Court judge Michael Davis to give him a lesser sentence of 30 years in prison, followed by a lifetime of supervised release.
What Ilhan Omar wrote
Thirteen individuals and groups wrote letters to Judge Davis, pleading on behalf of Daud for a lenient sentence. Many of the petitioners — who included Daud’s mother, brother, and childhood friends — testified to his personal qualities and previous work as a trainee community careworker and camp counselor and described him as a sensitive young man who had been radicalized and led astray from a once-promising future.
Among those who appealed to Judge Davis for leniency was Ilhan Omar, who sent her letter on 8 November 2016 — the same day on which she was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives. In her letter (which can be read in full here), she wrote:
As you undoubtedly deliberate with great caution the sentencing of nine recently convicted Somali-American men, I bring to your attention the ramifications of sentencing young men who made a consequential mistake to decades in federal prison. Incarcerating 20-year-old men for 30 or 40 years is essentially a life sentence. Society will have no expectations of the to be 50- or 60-year-old released prisoners; it will view them with distrust and revulsion. Such punitive measures not only lack efficacy, they inevitably create an environment in which extremism can flourish, aligning with the presupposition of terrorist recruitment: “Americans do not accept you and continue to trivialize your value. Instead of being a nobody, be a martyr.”
The best deterrent to fanaticism is a system of compassion. We must alter our attitude and approach; if we truly want to affect [sic] change, we should refocus our efforts on inclusion and rehabilitation. A long-term prison sentence for one who chose violence to combat direct marginalization is a statement that our justice system misunderstands the guilty. A restorative approach to justice assesses the lure of criminality and addresses it.
The desire to commit violence is not inherent to people — it is the consequence of systematic alienation; people seek violent solutions when the process established for enacting change is inaccessible to them. Fueled by disaffection turned to malice, if the guilty were willing to kill and be killed fighting perceived injustice, imagine the consequence of them hearing, “I believe you can be rehabilitated. I want you to become part of my community, and together we will thrive.”
In the end, Judge Davis followed the prosecution’s recommendation and sentenced Daud to 30 years in federal prison, followed by a lifetime of supervised release. As of January 2019, Daud was 25 years old. His scheduled release date is 30 June 2041.
Although Omar sent the letter to Judge Davis in the specific context of Daud’s imminent sentencing, the letter never once referred to him or any of the other eight men by name. Omar did not appeal for leniency on the basis of her personal acquaintance with Daud, nor did she testify about his personal qualities.
Rather, her letter contained a number of more general, principled statements about what she perceived as the best response to Muslim extremism and radicalization. For example, “The best deterrent to fanaticism is a system of compassion” and “A long-term prison sentence for one who chose violence to combat direct marginalization is a statement that our justice system misunderstands the guilty.”
Indeed, Omar even suggested that the imposition of decades-long prison sentences for young offenders could actually fuel radicalization, writing: “Such punitive measures not only lack efficacy, they inevitably create an environment in which extremism can flourish.”
Omar did not write to Judge Davis that she believed leniency and rehabilitation were appropriate as a blanket response to each and every instance of ISIS recruitment, or indeed to each and every terrorism-related offence. She did emphasize the relative youth of the nine Minnesota men, whom she described as having made “a consequential mistake.” At the risk of stating the obvious, it is also worth emphasizing that her appeals for leniency and restorative justice were made on the basis that they would have the net effect of hampering and combating future radicalization, not on the basis that she supported or agreed with the crimes the men committed.
The claim made by the @Education4Libs Twitter account was that Rep. Omar “wants lighter sentences for people who have been caught trying to join ISIS.”
Notwithstanding the fact that she sent her November 2016 letter to Judge Michael Davis on behalf of a specific individual who had been “caught trying to join ISIS,” the principles she invoked and response she advocated in that letter were relevant and applicable beyond the specific circumstances surrounding the conviction of Abdurahman Yasin Daud, and her letter did not mention him by name, nor contain any testimony about his personal character.
As such, there is a degree of truth to the claim contained in the meme, and we issue a mixed verdict. We asked a spokesperson for Rep. Omar whether she stood by her 2016 letter, whether she supported shorter prison sentences in general for terrorism-related offences, and whether she had made similar interventions in any other terrorism-related cases.
We did not receive a response to those specific questions, but the spokesperson did send us a statement on behalf of Rep. Omar indicating that she retained her preference for restorative justice and rehabilitation as alternatives to incarceration, in general:
“Throughout her career, Rep. Omar has supported restorative justice and alternatives to incarceration. It was part of her campaign platform and will continue to be a core tenet of her agenda in Congress. She believes everyone has the ability to be rehabilitated. If we truly believe in reforming our criminal justice system, we must reform the way it treats violent, as well as non-violent, offenders. Research has shown that this problem is particularly acute for perceived Muslim perpetrators. Muslim perceived defendants get four times the prison time for foiled ideologically motivated crimes as white supremacists — even though white supremacist violence accounted for nearly every extremist murder in 2018. Conflating support for a rehabilitative approach to justice with support for the violent acts of offenders — as many on the right have done — is shameful and an intentional distortion of her views.”