Washington (CNN)Federal prosecutors alleged Monday that six Minneapolis men repeatedly tried to travel to Syria to join ISIS, a case law enforcement officials called the clearest window yet into a peer-to-peer ISIS recruitment network in the U.S.
Minneapolis men allegedly trying to join ISIS highlight role of American recruiter
Until now, most recruits have appeared to be self-starters, heeding a clarion call broadcast via propaganda videos on the Internet and representations of life in the ISIS caliphate portrayed on social media.
But in bringing charges against the six men Monday, Minnesota U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger described a recruiter, American Abdi Nur, who succeeded in reaching Syria and then spent months encouraging his friends back in Minneapolis to join him in fighting with ISIS, during which time they allegedly made several unsuccessful attempts to do so.
The FBI had the help of a cooperating witness, who had initially planned to travel with the group but then decided to help the FBI by recording calls and social media communications between Nur and his friends.
The federal complaint also portrays multiple intervention efforts of friends and family members, and even the FBI, to try to dissuade the alleged recruits from carrying out their plans before the FBI finally made the arrests.
Lugar, speaking at a news conference, said the recruiting in this case was, "Friend to friend. Brother to brother."
He added, "They did have extra help. They had their friend Abdi Nur. Because he made it to Syria last year and knows different routes and has different contacts, he's become a de facto foreign fighter recruiter for those in Minnesota."
A senior law enforcement official said the terror case involving the Minnesota men reflects a growing trend of a "peer to peer" network model of terror recruitment, particularly amongst radicalized individuals within the Somali-American community. Rather than large facilitation networks or a hierarchy of recruiting historically seen in terrorism cases, the official said there's a shift toward diffused, unorganized networking through social media and in groups of friends.
The official said there will be more cases like this one involving groups of people, as well as an increase in the number of ISIS-related cases.
"This isn't going away in the short term," the official said, adding that this is a significant case because some of the individuals knew they were on the radar of law enforcement and still tried to proceed. A separate law enforcement official told CNN there are other ongoing investigations into recruiting and travel of individuals to Syria from Minnesota.
Nur himself is still believed to be alive and helping ISIS recruit from Syria.
Nur was communicating in real time with some of the men, promising them different ways he could get them into Syria, a law enforcement official said Monday.
Federal investigators also believe another Minneapolis-area recruit -- identified only as YJ in the criminal complaint -- was killed last year in Syria.
Nur was unusually active in luring his friends, according to law enforcement officials.
He told them he had a contact in Mexico from whom they could purchase fake passports. When that fell through, the men then decided to go to San Diego, where the FBI's cooperating witness told them he could get fake passports.
The personal connection between Nur and his potential recruits is one that the local community should pay attention to, Lugar stressed.
"Parents and loved ones should know that there is not one master recruiter organizing in the Somali community locally," Luger said. "What this case shows is that the person radicalizing your son, your brother, your friend, may not be a stranger. It may be their best friend right here in town."
The cooperating witness was detained alongside two of his friends Sunday in San Diego; his name and details of his case aren't public. The other four were arrested Sunday in Minneapolis as they prepared to take the same route.