Somali man pleads guilty to terrorism charge

Salah Osman Ahmed
Salah Osman Ahmed of New Brighton, Minn. has pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists.
Photo courtesy of Anoka County

A Twin Cities man indicted on charges of traveling to Somalia to fight with a terrorist group offered the first details of his journey in federal court Tuesday.

Salah Osman Ahmed, 26, of New Brighton, pleaded guilty to one count of providing material support to terrorists.

Reporter Laura Yuen attended the hearing for Salah Osman Ahmed in Minneapolis and spoke to host Tom Crann of "All Things Considered."

Q. What was the purpose of the hearing?

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Ahmed reached a deal with federal prosecutors. As part of the agreement, he pleaded to providing material support to terrorists. All other charges he was initially indicted on -- conspiring to kill and maim people abroad and two counts of providing false statements to authorities -- will be dismissed when Ahmed is sentenced.

Q. That's still a very serious charge. What was Ahmed's demeanor in the courtroom today?

Ahmed seemed relaxed. He smiled and shook his attorney's hand and also smiled and waved to family members who filled up two rows of seats. He wore a black, oversized suit and respectfully answered the judge's questions and made clear he understood that by pleading guilty, he would give up his right to a trial.

Q. What details did we learn about his trip to Somalia, and why he left?

Back in October 2007, while he was living in Minnesota, he said he met "some guys," as he put it, who were talking about going back to Somalia to fight the Ethiopian soldiers who invaded Somalia. From October to December, they met secretly in Minneapolis.

Ahmed said he knew he would be fighting with Al-Shabaab. That's the hard-line Islamic group that is creating much of the violence we're seeing in Somalia today. But back in 2007, the group had some popular support because the fighters were taking on the Ethiopian occupation, and some people saw their cause as nationalistic.

Q. How did Ahmed get to Somalia?

He said this group of men "collected money together." There's been speculation that a recruiter financed these trips, but his statement today indicated that at least this first group of men who left in 2007 were either making money or raising money to pay for the trips.

Last week, I talked to Minneapolis attorney Stephen Smith, who is representing a young woman who was recently subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury as part of this investigation. The woman knew some of the missing men. Smith said he thought his client was approached in part because she could offer insight into how fund-raising works in the Somali community here. She said she would simply ask adults for some cash to pay for summer activities for her and her friends. It wasn't tied to any organization or nonprofit.

But it's not clear if this is the same approach that Salah Ahmed and his friends took to raise money for their trips. Ahmed told the judge today that he first flew into Dubai, and then went to Somalia. Ahmed told the judge the tickets cost about $1,500 each.

Q. Did Ahmed say what it was like for him once he arrived in Somalia?

He said he and the other men stayed at a woman's house for a while. They received instruction on how to use AK-47s and larger machine guns called PKMs. After the hearing, his attorney, Jim Ostgard, clarified that Ahmed was not using live ammunition.

Ahmed told the judge he went to the site of a training camp that hadn't been set up yet. He said he helped clear trees. After about one to two weeks, he said he left the camp.

Judge James Rosenbaum asked Ahmed if he realized that Al-Shabaab was considered by the U.S. a terrorist group. Ahmed said he didn't at the time, but he knows now.

After the hearing, Ostgard told me Ahmed stayed in Somalia from December 2007 until April 2008, but Ahmed left the camp before the U.S. officially declared Al-Shabaab a terrorist group in March of 2008. Ostgard said the fact that Ahmed left Al-Shabaab before the designation helped Ostgard negotiate the deal with prosecutors. "He would have faced more serious charges" if Ahmed left after March 2008, Ostgard said.

Q. Did we learn more about who Salah Ahmed is?

We knew he was working as a security guard, lived in New Brighton, and attended North Hennepin Community College for a few years. But we learned today that he is a naturalized citizen of the U.S. and that he's single with no kids. He was born in Somalia and came to the United States when he was 15.

Q. What's next for Salah Ahmed?

Rosenbaum conditionally accepted Ahmed's guilty plea and ordered the probation office to complete a pre-sentence investigation. A sentencing hearing is expected over the next couple of months. Under the original charges, Ahmed faced life in prison. Under this plea deal, he's looking at five to 15 years in prison under the sentencing guidelines.

Ostgard, Ahmed's attorney, said the sentencing range is so broad because of a so-called "terrorism adjustment," which can lengthen the punishment under sentencing guidelines. Ostgard said he will argue against the use of the terrorism adjustment because he does not think Ahmed was involved in terrorism.

Q. What's the status of the investigation into the other Minnesota men?

When Ahmed's indictment was unsealed a couple of weeks ago, we also learned about Abdifatah Isse, who pleaded guilty to the same charge. Isse is in jail and is cooperating with authorities. We've been told that more indictments could be coming.