Three men with Minnesota ties could spend several years in prison for traveling to their native Somalia to fight in that country's bloody conflict.
According to court documents and interviews with friends, at least two of the men planned to go to war with Ethiopian soldiers who invaded Somalia -- not to wage attacks on the United States.
The three men have pleaded guilty to providing material support for terrorists. Now, some Somali-Americans in Minnesota are questioning the U.S. government's punishment of what some considered a patriotic pull of the homeland.
Two years ago, that attraction played out in different ways. Young Somali-Americans were consumed with the atrocities taking place in their families' native country, said Somali-American activist Aman Obsiye.
"It was the talk of every coffee shop, in every school. It was what students were debating about," he said.
Obsiye, a University of Minnesota graduate student and former rapper, said the 2006 occupation of Somalia by its longtime enemy set off a fever in Minnesota. Somali drivers slapped bumper stickers on their cars saying "Ethiopia out of Somalia." Activists staged rallies. And at a Somali-American student conference featuring Obsiye as a speaker, a few young men expressed their disgust with the U.S.-backed invasion.
"The bait was the foreign occupation," he said. "That's what baited the kids to go back to Somalia and fight."
Obsiye said he knows this because a few of those outraged students whom he met at the conference are now among the 20 men from the Twin Cities who are being investigated for allegedly returning to Somalia to join the war.
At least four of those men have died in Somalia, according to friends and family members. Federal authorities believe one of them became America's first suicide bomber.
Many community members support a federal investigation into the recruitment of these fighters and strongly disagree with the young men's actions. Yet they believe the men were swept up in a mix of nationalism, testosterone and perhaps stupidity -- not global terror.
Even before the first indictments in the case went public, it was clear some Somali-Americans saw nothing criminal in taking up arms across the ocean. Last spring, on the radio show "Somali Community Link" on KFAI, a man who identified himself as "Abdi" called in for legal clarity on what seemed to be a confusing situation:
"So what's the matter if Americans from other nations go back to their country, to defend their country from foreign invasions, like what Ethiopia has done to Somalia?"
Abdi was directing his question to one of the show's guests, Ralph Boelter, the special agent in charge of the Minneapolis office of the FBI.
To Boelter, the law is clear.
"If Somali-Americans travel back to Somalia and support al-Shabaab, we have a problem," Boelter said on the show, "because al-Shabaab is a designated terrorist organization."
But in late 2007, when the first wave of Minnesotans left to fight with al-Shabaab, the United States had not yet declared the Somali militia a terrorist group. The official designation came months later, in March 2008.
In fact, Abdifatah Isse and Salah Ahmed, two of the three men who have reached deals with federal prosecutors left the al-Shabaab training camp within days of arriving there, according to court documents and testimony.
If the two were smart enough to defect from al-Shabaab before the U.S. labeled it a terrorist group, why would they plead guilty to providing material support for terrorists?
Legal experts say an individual doesn't have to enlist with an official terrorist group to be found guilty of supporting terrorists. Under the statute the men pleaded guilty to, they could be convicted simply for planning to kill others abroad.
"It could be money, it could be providing a safe house, it could be providing training, it could be providing yourself as a person willing to do bad things," said former CIA attorney, John Radsan, now a professor at William Mitchell College of Law.
Radsan accepts the notion that someone who left for nationalistic reasons may be less alarming to the U.S. government than someone who wanted to be part of a global holy war. But he said prosecutors won't make that distinction when pursuing charges.
Radsan says the courts might show leniency in the sentencing, especially in the cases of the three men who have already pleaded guilty.
"They were the first ones to be charged, they've cooperated, and I think they sentence they get will reflect that," Radsan said. "The system is trying to do what is right."
Isse and Ahmed face up to 15 years in prison.
But Radsan says the charges also send a message to others who may be entertaining the idea of fighting overseas with al-Shabaab. "They've been put on notice, by all the media coverage and by these cases, that they're doing something wrong and something that can expose them to very severe criminal sanctions," Radsan said. "And I think those people will be in a less sympathetic position to those defendants who already pleaded guilty."
The third man who has pleaded guilty in the case, Kamal Hassan, was charged under two statutes: providing material support to terrorists and providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization. The latter charge may indicate he stayed and fought with al-Shabaab after the group received the U.S. terrorism designation. Court records suggest he was active with al-Shabaab through August 2008, or five months after the designation.
Hassan faces up to 15 years in prison on each of those two charges. He has also pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents, which calls for a maximum sentence of eight years in prison. A judge will determine the final sentencing, and whether Hassan can serve it concurrently.
Authorities are concerned that Somalia could be a breeding ground for international terrorists, and that American fighters who are trained there could pose a risk to U.S. national security. The actions of Shirwa Ahmed, the Minneapolis man who blew himself up and killed innocent bystanders in Somalia last fall, suggest that some of the American fighters were motivated by extreme religion -- not simply a contained attack on the Ethiopian army.
While most Somalis now condemn the violent actions of al-Shabaab, the group received early support from some Somalis around the world back in 2006. Many saw their fight as a legitimate struggle against the Ethiopian occupation, which resulted in heavy fighting and casualties of civilians. Witnesses told Amnesty International that Ethiopian troops slit Somalis in the throat in what was coined locally as "slaughtering" or "killing like goats."
But even after the Ethiopians withdrew from Somalia at the beginning of this year, al-Shabaab has continued to kill innocents and push for their idea of Islamic law by way of suicide bombings, amputations and stoning. U.S. authorities say the group has ties to al-Qaida.
The FBI and Homeland Security officials have been meeting in Minnesota with Somali community leaders as part of regular outreach meetings. FBI spokesman E.K. Wilson said most community leaders understand the law, and they've requested those leaders to help spread the word.
"I'm certain that nationalism has played a large part in the decision for these young men to travel, but the fact remains that there are terrorist organizations that are waging violence in Somalia and in the Horn of Africa, [and] that support to that organization by an American citizen would be a violation of federal law," Wilson said.