What began as a quest to become a "good Muslim" took a young suburban Twin Cities man to a battlefield in Somalia.
Kamal Said Hassan, 27, told a federal jury this week he was a foot soldier for the terrorist group al-Shabab who eventually became part of its jihadist video propaganda.
Hassan is the third Minnesota recruit to testify in the federal trial of Mahamud Said Omar of Minnepaolis. The 46-year-old defendant, a former mosque janitor, is accused of helping send fighters and cash to al-Shabab.
On the witness stand, Hassan appeared confident and likable. He spoke with deference, naturally peppering his replies with "yes, your honor," and "no, sir."
That's why, even as Hassan was donning jail-issued orange sweats, it was hard to reconcile the man in the courtroom with the one on the video.
Federal prosecutors played footage from 2008 of Hassan and other al-Shabab recruits showing off the skills they learned at a training camp in southern Somalia. The young men wear green fatigues, and scarves that concealed their faces.
They're seen army-crawling through trenches, doing pull-ups from a tree branch, running with machine guns, and shooting a picture of Somalia's then-president that they used for target practice.
When prosecutor William Narus asked Hassan if he recognized a man with a checkered scarf talking to the camera, Hassan replied: "That's me, sir."
On the video, Hassan calls on other Muslims living abroad to join the holy war.
"I sincerely advise my beloved brothers and sisters to make hijrah [migrate], and come and join us, and defend the religion of Allah," Hassan says on the video.
Hassan told the courtroom that al-Shabab leaders picked him for the speaking role because out of the Minnesota recruits with al-Shabab, he spoke English with the truest American accent. Hassan said his words were scripted ahead of time by Omar Hammami, an al-Shabab leader from Alabama.
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LONG WAY FROM PLYMOUTH
The back country of Somalia was a long way from Hassan's four-bedroom family home in Plymouth, Minnesota. He explained to the jury that while spending much of his time at the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque in Minneapolis during Ramadan of 2007, he was recruited to fight by a group of other young male worshippers.
Hassan wasn't very religious at the time and didn't know much about the Quran. He said the young men told him it was his duty to return to the place of his birth and fight Ethiopian troops that occupied the country. Hassan believed them.
"I thought that I was being a good Muslim and Somalian by joining these men and going over there," he told the jury.
Hassan hadn't been to Somalia since he was 6, when civil war broke out. The idea of traveling there, he told the jury, sounded like an "adventure."
But he knew his father would never allow him to do it. So Hassan lied to his dad, telling him he was instead going to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj pilgrimage.
The government believes more than 20 Twin Cities men went to fight for al-Shabab. Hassan and two others have returned to Minnesota, have pleaded guilty to terror-related charges, and are cooperating with the government. About nine are believed dead. That leaves at least eight that are still at large.
AMBUSH OF ETHIOPIAN TROOPS
In a second propaganda video, Hassan's group of fighters is seen staging an ambush of Ethiopian troops. The confrontation erupts in gunfire -- and leaves at least one al-Shabab fighter from Kenya dead.
Hassan told the jury he didn't fire his gun, but was ready to do so.
Later in the video, another Minnesota fighter is front and center, making the appeal for more foreign fighters. Ahmed Ali Omar, who Hassan said helped organize the pipeline of recruits from Minnesota, brags on camera about the feasts of goats and camel milk he's enjoyed as a holy warrior.
"Sometimes we slaughter two camels, huge camels. We're not able to finish the meat, we have to give it away," Omar says.
But Hassan told the courtroom that was a lie.
After the ambush, Hassan decided he didn't want to be a member of al-Shabab anymore. He slipped away from the group after receiving permission to visit relatives in other parts of the country.
Meanwhile, his father in Minnesota -- who Hassan deceived into thinking he was going to Hajj --convinced his son by phone to come home and cooperate with the FBI. Using money sent from his father, Hassan took a ship filled with camels, cows, and goats to Yemen. There, he met up with family members. Government agents were waiting, ready to take him back to Minnesota as a star cooperating witness.
How Hassan's testimony relates to the man on trial, Mahamud Omar, isn't yet clear. The government alleges Omar stayed with some of the Minnesota fighters at an al-Shabab safe house in Somalia, funneled money to the group, and helped facilitate a second wave of fighters after returning to Minnesota.
But Hassan testified he never saw Omar at any of the secret meetings in Minneapolis that preceded the young men's trips to Somalia; nor did Hassan see him in Somalia.
Omar's attorneys will cross-examine Hassan today.
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