Federal authorities say a massive investigation into the disappearances of about 20 young Somali men from Minnesota has taken a significant step forward with a seventh arrest in the case.
This week, a grand jury indicted Omer Abdi Mohamed on charges of supporting terrorists. The 24-year-old St. Anthony man had his first court appearance Thursday.
Investigators have been trying to determine who recruited young Somali-American men from Minnesota to fight in one of the deadliest places on earth. For more than a year, that question has gone unanswered.
The indictment against Omer Mohamed alleges he was directly involved in sending six young men to the chaos of their East African homeland. The indictment said he, "knowingly committed and caused the commission" of the disappearances of the first wave of fighters who traveled to Somalia, back in December 2007.
One of them included Shirwa Ahmed of Minneapolis. Authorities believe Ahmed became the first American suicide bomber when he allegedly blew up himself and several others more than a year ago in Somalia.
But Omer Mohamed's attorney, Peter Wold, said his client wasn't involved in any kind of conspiracy.
"He didn't have a role," he said. "I mean, he knew people that went to Somalia, as did everybody else in that community. It's a tight-knit community. His country of birth was invaded by Ethiopia. That brought passion to a lot of people, as it would you or me."
Wold was referring to the climate in late 2007 in Somali communities around the globe, including the Twin Cities, during the Ethiopian occupation of Somalia. Friends of the missing American fighters have said that the young men wanted to defend their homeland. But the hard-line Islamic group they allegedly joined, al-Shabaab, has continued down a violent path even after the Ethiopian soldiers pulled out of the country this year. The U-S considers al-Shabaab a terrorist group.
Peter Wold pointed out that the indictment against his client was short on specifics.
"It alleges four of five people in December 2007 took flights to Somalia. It wasn't him," Wold said.
Mohamed was indicted on three counts: conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, providing material support to terrorists, and conspiracy to kill and injure others abroad. The latter two charges are identical to some of the other men who have pleaded guilty to traveling to Somalia with the intent to fight.
But while they were accused of providing themselves to the insurgency, Mohamed is accused of providing financial support and personnel, according to the indictment.
In federal court in Minneapolis, a prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney's office stressed the seriousness of the charges against Mohamed in seeking his detention. But a judge allowed Mohamed to be released on a $25,000 bond and several conditions, including electronic monitoring. Mohamed will be arraigned on Tuesday.
An FBI spokesman declined to offer specifics about Mohamed's role in the case, other than to said the indictment was "very significant step in the investigation." FBI agents arrested Mohamed Thursday morning at his home without incident.
Mohamed expected charges
His lawyer says Mohamed has known for several months that he was the subject of an investigation, and the charges weren't a surprise. He described his client as a legal resident of the U.S., and pointed out that Mohamed's wife and seven-week-old baby boy were in the courtroom.
Mohamed's wife, Safiya Esse, said she was relieved that he would be able to come home to her and her infant son.
Mohamed, also known as "Galeyr," was also charged with conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim, or injure persons in a foreign land. He told a judge he was working as an employment counselor for the state of Minnesota until he was laid off a couple of weeks ago. Mohamed said he believed to have about $700 in his bank account. After the hearing, family and friends described him as a good man and proud young father who grew up in the United States.
"He's a really nice person, very easy-going," said a cousin, Isse Hussein. "I don't think he would harm other people."
Relatives said they believed he attended Roosevelt High School and frequented the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque, where a number of the missing fighters also worshipped.
Mohamed is accused of helping the following men travel to Somalia: Shirwa Ahmed, Salah Osman Ahmed, Kamal Said Hassan, Ahmed Ali Omar, Abdifatah Isse, and Khalid Mohamud Abshir. Three of those men have pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges. Shirwa Ahmed is dead. And Ahmed Ali Omar and Khalid Mohamed Abshir are still believed to be in Somalia.
In addition, Adarus Ali has pleaded guilty to perjury, and Abdow Munye Abdow has pleaded not guilty to lying to federal agents.
Omer Mohamed's indictment follows last week's arrest of 43-year-old Mohamud Said Omar in the Netherlands. Authorities believe the former Minneapolis man helped purchase weapons for insurgents in Somalia, and the U.S. is seeking his extradition.
Omar's older brother, Mohamed Osman of Rochester, says his brother was not extremist, not sophisticated, and not wealthy enough to finance terrorism.
Osman says he was eager to hear that the FBI made another arrest in the case.
"We want to know many things. Families want to know what's going on: Why my child went over there? Who made him do this things? Who is the mastermind? Did they decide this themselves, or was there someone else behind the curtain?"
Osman said he hopes the latest break in the case sheds more light on those still-unanswered questions.