A Minneapolis man Monday pleaded guilty to helping send the first wave of young Somali-Americans back to fight alongside extremists in one of the deadliest places in the world.
Omer Abdi Mohamed, 26, was set to become the first defendant to go to trial Tuesday as part of a sweeping federal terror investigation.
Mohamed admitted being a member of a conspiracy that recruited young Somali-American men to fight the Ethiopian troops that had occupied Somalia. He acknowledged attending secret meetings that planned out the trips, and helping the travelers secure plane tickets.
Mohamed told U.S. District Court Chief Judge Michael Davis he now agrees those actions were illegal.
It's been nearly three years since Shirwa Ahmed, a Minneapolis man, carried out the first suicide bombing overseas by an American citizen. The flow of roughly two dozen Twin Cities men to the Horn of Africa spurred one of the most significant domestic terrorism cases since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Federal authorities say Mohamed went so far as to help secure a false itinerary from a local travel agency to mislead one man's parents about where he was going. Mohamed is the sixth man to plead guilty after the investigation, known to federal agents as "Operation Rhino."
Mohamed is one of 18 men with Minnesota ties charged in the case. A federal grand jury also indicted two women from Rochester on charges of sending money to al-Shabab, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group.
A HARDSHIP FOR SOMALI-AMERICAN COMMUNITY
The investigation has taken its toll on the Somali-American community. Many Somali-Americans are still looking for answers to the key question of what motivated these young men.
"Young men leaving here, committing suicide bombings, killing innocent people, and they think they're doing the right thing," said Nimco Ahmed, a rising leader in the Minneapolis Somali community. That's the thing that's unbelievable to me. So what's not possible anymore?"
Over the past three years, Nimco Ahmed has seen an old friend from high school, Shirwa Ahmed, become a suicide bomber in Somalia. This spring, another a Twin Cities man was killed in Mogadishu when he tried to blow himself up.
The Somali community in Minnesota is so interconnected that she knew many of the men now facing charges. One of her brother's closest friends was a suspected recruiter. He's now believed dead.
Ahmed, who served on an advisory group to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano on countering violent extremism, said she feels a sense of guilt that she and so many other community members were in the dark about the radicalization.
Another young community member, Hindia Ali, was friends with one of the young men killed in Somalia, University of Minnesota student Mohamoud Hassan. With this week's trial now canceled, Ali may have to wait before she hears the answers to some of her burning questions.
"Who influenced or motivated them to go over there?" Ali asked. "What did they say? How did they get some young people who had all their future ahead of them to change their minds?"
THE FBI'S CASE
The FBI acknowledges there are pieces of the investigation that have not played out publicly, and some probably never will. Mohamed and the other 17 defendants in the case roughly fall into four groups: alleged travelers, facilitators, recruiters, and people who lied to the authorities. Some of the men had overlapping roles.
The first young Somalis began to disappear from the Twin Cities in 2007, when a tempest was building in Somali communities worldwide. Ethiopian troops had invaded Somalia to prop up the faltering government in Mogadishu. Federal prosecutors alleged that a core group of men decided they would secretly send men from Twin Cities to fight the foreign invasion alongside Islamic extremists.
The government believes the travelers planned to join one of the men's relatives, a senior al-Shabab member. According to court documents, the men told unsuspecting community members they were raising money for a new mosque, or for the relief effort in Somalia. But authorities say that cash actually went to pay for plane tickets.
One thing that has yet to emerge is a sole mastermind, according to FBI agent E.K. Wilson.
"If you're looking for an overall figurehead who's pulling all the strings back here in Minneapolis, you're probably not going to find that," Wilson said. "It's much more of a loosely organized, peer-to-peer type organization."
The FBI has learned a lot about the recruitment since the beginning days of the investigation, when half of the Minneapolis division along with agents from around the country dove into the case, Wilson said. The bureau and the U.S. Attorney's office have since stepped up their outreach with community members.
Wilson is confident the government has a clear understanding of how the radicalization occurred, and who's responsible. But he said the FBI has some lingering questions.
"What effect is our investigation having on continued efforts to send themselves overseas? Those are questions we have to ask ourselves," Wilson said. "And the biggest question of all, what are the plans of al-Shabab?"
Counterterrorism officials appear to have increased their focus on the extremist militia in recent months. In June, the United States reportedly expanded its drone war against al-Shabab.
Federal law enforcement officials are concerned that the terrorist group would send one of its American fighters back to carry out an attack on U.S. soil, even though FBI officials say there is no evidence to support that.
While news of other post-September 11 terror plots have surfaced across the country, the case out of Minneapolis remains significant, said Bill Braniff of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
"What's unique about the Somali case is the number, the scale of Americans who have been attracted to take part in the conflict in Somalia," Braniff said. "What's also significant is that there are many non-Somalis who have seen Somalia as a legitimate jihadist theater front."
Federal prosecutors were planning to admit as evidence this week al-Shabab propaganda and training videos pointing toward the alleged conspiracy. In one of these films, an Alabama-born senior al-Shabab member is seen preparing to lead fighters in an ambush of Ethiopian troops.
But why would al-Shabab even want to recruit a soldier from Minneapolis or Seattle or Daphne, Ala.?
"Shabab is not looking for a young teenager to hold an AK-47," Braniff said. "Unfortunately, they have that in spades. They're not bringing in fighters to be fighters; they're bringing in fighters to be propagandists, technology support, suicide terrorists, and other niche jobs."
For al-Shabab, the Somali-American recruits also are symbols of a larger fight. Braniff said recruiting overseas is also a good strategy because an American who ends up at the training camp doesn't have the family or support network nearby to bring him back to safety.
A top FBI counterterrorism official estimated more than a dozen American recruits have died fighting for al-Shabab since 2006. The government hasn't confirmed what happened to all two dozen Minnesotans who went to Somalia, but families and friends believe nine men from the state have died overseas.
Some have made it back to the United States. Three men who were part of the first wave of travelers and helped set up a training camp in southern Somalia eventually left the camp. They've all pleaded guilty to charges of supporting al-Shabab. Two are living at home while awaiting sentencing. Only one, Kamal Hassan, remains in custody. Another alleged facilitator charged in the case is in the Netherlands waiting extradition.
The FBI acknowledges several more travelers are still believed to be in the Horn of Africa. They include two men who escaped through the Mexico border in 2009, about a year after the federal investigation began.