By David Hanners
For the most part, the men who left the Twin Cities to fight for al-Shabaab in Somalia were young and fit. Some even had a bit of college under their belt.
Mahamud Said Omar was none of those things.
But federal prosecutors maintain he didn’t need youth, vigor or smarts to recruit and finance local men to fight for the group. Prosecutors may rest their case in Omar’s terror-conspiracy trial as early as Monday, Oct. 15.
So far, the government’s witnesses — including three men who joined al-Shabaab — have testified the former part-time janitor contributed $500 “pocket money” for travel, showed up at an al-Shabaab safe-house and shelled out money to help run the place and buy two AK-47s.
But they have also said he never attended any of the secret meetings that the small band of rebel wannabes held in October and November 2007 to plan their activities.
Also, it appears Omar somehow escaped having to follow the rules other recruits had to follow, which included surrendering passports to an al-Shabaab den mother and assuming new names.
Omar kept his passport and everyone called him “Sharif,” a family name he’s long been known by, the men testified.
The federal trial of Omar, 46, of Minneapolis, enters its third week Monday. He faces three counts of conspiracy and a count each of providing material support to terrorists and providing support to a Foreign Terrorist Organization; the latter is a designation the State Department gave al-Shabaab in February
2008, making it a crime to contribute to it.
Among the government’s final witnesses will be an FBI agent who interrogated Omar while he was in custody in the Netherlands. Omar spent more than two years there, first seeking asylum and, when that was rejected, fighting extradition to the U.S.
Federal agents claim that while in Dutch custody, Omar admitted involvement in the alleged conspiracy. Those statements, which the defense sought to bar from evidence, are part of what FBI Special Agent Kiann Vandenover will testify about when she takes the stand.
The FBI has been investigating the exodus of Twin Cities men to Somalia since the fall of 2007, after the first group of men (the government calls them “travelers”) left for the East African country.
Almost all the men had left Somalia as child refugees in the 1990s. But in 2007, a small band of local men — inflamed that Somalia’s transitional government had called in Ethiopian troops to fight the fundamentalist Islamic Courts Union and, later, al-Shabaab — persuaded others to return to their homeland to fight the foreigners.
Al-Shabaab (Arabic for “the youth”) has waged a guerilla war, carrying out assassinations and attacking military, government and civilian targets. Although Islam is Somalia’s official religion, al-Shabaab seeks to impose an extremist Islamic government in Somalia.
The three “travelers” who testified said they knew little or nothing about al-Shabaab or its goals when they agreed to return to Somalia. They said their aim was to drive the Ethiopians from the country.
MONEY FOR GUNS
After the first group of men left for Somalia, family members grew concerned about the unexplained disappearances and went to authorities. The FBI launched “Operation Rhino.” (Somalia is in the Horn of Africa.)
The investigation has resulted in charges against 18 men. Seven have pleaded guilty; three of them have testified against Omar and a fourth is scheduled to. Eight are fugitives, one is confirmed dead and another is believed dead.
Omar is the only one to take his case to trial. As such, the government has used the 14 witnesses and 123 exhibits it has presented so far to showcase declassified portions of “Rhino.”
A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office said before the trial that the case was important because it would be the government’s only opportunity to present evidence in a public forum.
While the scope of the investigation has been extensive, some things have gone without explanation, at least so far. For example, it appears that while people in the Twin Cities knowingly contributed money to buy weapons, they have not been charged.
The “travelers” who have testified said that after the Americans arrived at an al-Shabaab safe house, they were told they’d have to buy their own weapons. None had the money — an AK-47 costs up to $400 in Somalia, one man told jurors — so several of them called women they knew in Minnesota to ask for money.
The men were direct in their appeals, telling the women they were in Somalia and needed money for guns. The women sent the money, an apparent violation of the same laws Omar is charged with.
To date, none has been charged. A Justice Department lawyer declined to comment when asked if the claims were investigated or charges considered.
The government has shown zeal in prosecuting other al-Shabaab funders. Last year, two Rochester women were convicted of raising $8,600 for the group. The probe involved the interception and translation of 30,000 of one of the women’s calls over a 10-month period, and agents retrieved and searched her garbage twice a week.
Omar traveled to Somalia in January 2008. His family has said that it was to get married, and that on his way from the capital of Mogadishu to his bride-to-be’s home, he stopped to visit a relative in the coastal city of Merca, 43 miles south of Mogadishu.
Merca is the location of one of the al-Shabaab safe houses “travelers” have testified about. They said Omar showed up at the house and stayed a few days (his family said it was overnight); they said if you weren’t part of the group, you weren’t allowed in the house.
One of the men claimed Omar told him later in a phone conversation that he would see them later at an al-Shabaab training camp.
Omar never came to the camp, the man said. After getting married, Omar returned to the U.S. in April 2008 and enrolled in a truck-driving school in California.
Jurors have seen an al-Shabaab propaganda video filmed at the training c Omar could have been considered an odd fit. From the video, it appeared that the men were in shape, and that intense physical training was part of their daily regimen at the camp.
Omar carries a slight paunch, emphasized by his 5-foot-4, 140-pound frame, and his family said he has had a history of physical ailments; he suffered a seizure during a pretrial hearing.
He was also older than the other “travelers.” Omar was 42 when he left for Somalia. The other 17 Minnesotans who went there in 2007 and 2008 averaged 21.8 years of age. The youngest was 17. The oldest was 29.
DOES MONEY EQUAL ACTIVISM?
Among those in the courtroom’s gallery during much of the trial has been Omar Jamal, a longtime and sometimes controversial activist in the local Somali community. He now works for the Permanent Mission of the Somali Republic to the United Nations, and he said he fears that others involved in the recruitment have escaped prosecution.
He has acted as a spokesman for Omar’s family, and said he doesn’t believe Omar’s contributions of money mean he was part of a conspiracy.
“If I run into you in South Africa and you ask borrow $50, I will probably give it to you since I know you in Minneapolis,” he said. “Then once I give you the money and you blow up a building in Johannesburg, that doesn’t make me a criminal.”
“I think that’s the scenario we have here,” he said.
But in his opening statement to jurors two weeks ago, Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Kovats Jr. painted a more ominous picture of the defendant and his activities. He spoke of how the “travelers” were somehow persuaded to return to a country they hardly knew.
“They were raised here and educated here but the defendant turned them around and put them into that pipeline to Somalia,” he said.
David Hanners can be reached at 612-338-6516.