FBI confirms link between terror indictments, missing Somalis

Salah Osman Ahmed
Salah Osman Ahmed of New Brighton, Minn. has been charged with providing material support to terrorism, and conspiracy to kill people outside of the U.S.
Photo courtesy of Anoka County

A federal grand jury has indicted two men on terrorism charges in connection with the ongoing investigation of about 20 missing Somali-American men from the Twin Cities. Authorities think the men joined an extremist Islamic group with ties to al-Qaida in their homeland.

The indictment, which was filed in February but unsealed Monday, names Abdifatah Yusuf Isse of Seattle, Wash. and Salah Osman Ahmed of New Brighton, Minn. with providing material support to terrorism, and conspiracy to kill people outside of the U.S. It said the two men conspired over the course of more than a year, from September 2007 to December 2008.

The indictment charges them with conspiring to "kill, kidnap, and maim, and injure" others in a foreign country. It says Ahmed, the New Brighton man, boarded a Northwest flight in December 2007 from Minneapolis to Amsterdam with a final destination of Somalia to "fight jihad in Somalia."

On top of that, Ahmed is charged with lying to the FBI. The indictment says he told agents that he was traveling alone and did not know anyone on his flights to Somalia, when in fact, the indictment alleges he was flying with an another would-be fighter.

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The FBI office in Minneapolis confirmed that the indictments were part of a broad investigation into the disappearances of Somali-American men believed to be fighting in their homeland.

Authorities have spent several months investigating a possible terror link between the Twin Cities and Somalia, and the indictment against Ahmed and Isse were the first to be unsealed as part of the investigation.

But authorities would not describe the relationship between the two indicted men and the others fighting in Somalia. At least four Minnesotans have died there.

The FBI says Ahmed was arrested in New Brighton Saturday without incident. Isse was arrested some time ago. Both are in custody. The agency declined further comment.

James Ostgard, Ahmed's attorney, told MPR News that the indictment overplayed his client's role.

"The public is getting the very wrong idea about (Ahmed's) case," Ostgard said, referring to the indictment. "The effect of the words misleads the public to think it's a far more serious case than it is."

Ostgard declined to comment further. He said Ahmed, 26, works as a security guard. He appeared in uniform for a court hearing Monday.

Ahmed is scheduled for a detention hearing Thursday afternoon.

The three-page indictment is short on specifics, and it doesn't mention the travel plans of Isse, the Seattle man. But Isse was believed to be fighting with an insurgent group in his homeland, according to a Minneapolis attorney, Stephen Smith, whose client once dated Isse. The attorney learned that Isse was arrested about three months ago after reappearing in Seattle.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office declined to comment.

About 20 men from Minnesota are believed to be fighting with the Islamic extremist group Al-Shabaab in Somalia. The U.S. considers the group a terrorist organization, so it would be against the law for Americans to join forces with them.

The first wave of men left in 2007. Authorities think one of those early travelers, Shirwa Ahmed of Minneapolis, blew himself up in a suicide bombing in Somalia last fall.

Over the past several months, dozens of individuals have gone before a federal grand jury in Minneapolis.

Smith says some individuals were caught up in the investigation because they remained in touch with their friends after they left to fight in Somalia. He says soon after the departures, some friends even sent money to the fighters in Somalia before they realized the magnitude of the situation -- that a sizable group of Americans was joining an armed conflict in another country.

"It was like any other friend asking to borrow money," he said. "Maybe you get a phone call from someone who says, 'Hey look, I'm over here, it's not what I thought it was, I'm strapped for cash, can you send me a little bit?' And young people, not necessarily thinking there's anything wrong with it, send money."

In April, the FBI raided three money-wiring services in Minnesota, but it's unclear whether it was connected to the investigation into the disappearances.

Family members of the two men told a community activist, Omar Jamal, that they believe their sons were the "foot soldiers" of Shabaab -- not the main recruiters.

Omar Hurre, the director of the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque, where many of the missing men worshipped, says he welcomed the news that the case was progressing. Hurre says the mosque leaders hope anyone who broke the law is brought to justice.

"We're just glad it's going forward and going somewhere, instead of the community finger-pointing and speculating what's going on," Hurre said.

Monday's indictment was the first to be unsealed, and more are expected.