A federal jury is hearing dueling theories about a Minneapolis man accused of helping run a terrorist pipeline from Minnesota to Somalia.
Was Mahamud Said Omar an al-Shabab facilitator who steered two waves of American men into the arms of a terrorist organization?
Or was Omar a gentle and simple-minded janitor who was too incompetent to facilitate a jihadist movement?
Opening statements began today in the first case to go to trial in the government's massive investigation into al-Shabab recruitment in the Twin Cities. Testimony will continue Wednesday. The jury will hear from Twin Cities residents whose family members departed to join the insurgency in Somalia.
THE GOVERNMENT'S CASE
One government witness is Hibo Ahmed, whose brother Shirwa Ahmed, left Minneapolis in 2007 to fight for al-Shabab. The FBI has confirmed Ahmed blew himself up the following year in a suicide bombing in Somalia.
MPR News is Reader Funded
Before you keep reading, take a moment to donate to MPR News. Your financial support ensures that factual and trusted news and context remain accessible to all.
The federal government has charged Mahamud Said Omar, 46, with five terror-related counts, including providing material support to terrorists. Prosecutors allege that from 2007 to 2008, he directed men as young as 17 to join al-Shabab.
These young men were brought to the United States by their families to escape Somalia's civil war, and were raised and educated here, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Kovats.
"But the defendant turned them around and directed them into this pipeline into the violence of Somalia," Kovats told the jury.
The clandestine pipeline, Kovats said, was filled with men and money to assist al-Shabab in its quest to oust Ethiopian troops invited by the Somali government to help stabilize the country. Many Somalis consider Ethiopia an arch rival, and the military occupation provoked outrage from Somalis around the world, including in Minnesota. Al-Shabab also wanted to overthrow the weak Somali government and impose an extreme rule of law.
Before the first batch of men traveled for Somalia in fall 2007, Omar and the young men took care to keep their plans under cover. They held secret meetings in private rooms of restaurants on Lake Street in Minneapolis, at the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque, in cars and in private homes, prosecutors allege. Friends and other Somali-American community members, including mosque officials, were kept in the dark.
Fearing they would arouse suspicion if the men departed for Somalia all left at once, "they made plans to leave by ones and by twos," Kovats said.
The jury will hear testimony from three of those men, all with Minneapolis ties, who were among the first wave of travelers in 2007. Kamal Hassan, Abdifatah Isse, and Salah Ahmed have pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges and are awaiting sentencing.
The cooperating witnesses will place Omar at a safe house on the coast of Somalia that was exclusive to members of al-Shabab, where he provided weapons money for two of the Minneapolis fighters, Kovats said.
While the young men continued with their training, Omar left for another town, where he got married. He returned to Minnesota in August 2008, where prosecutors say he kept in constant touch with the Minneapolis fighters in Somalia. Phone tapes of those conversations will be played during the trial.
Omar also continued to coordinate the next wave of al-Shabab fighters from Minneapolis, the government alleges. Some men went door to door in Minneapolis, at a Somali mall, and in Eden Prairie seeking donations to pay for their travels under the ruse they were raising money for charity.
Omar took two teenagers, Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan and Mustafa Salat, to the airport in August 2008, prosecutors say. And months later, after Minneapolis fighter Shirwa Ahmed carried out a suicide bombing in Somalia, Omar "accelerated efforts" to send more Minnesota men to al-Shabab, Kovats charged. He took six men to a Minneapolis travel agency to secure their plane tickets.
Although Omar is not accused of planning any attacks or actions against the United States, it is a federal crime to aid and abet a foreign terrorist organization.
DEFENSE: OMAR INCOMPETENT
But Omar's legal team argues he is innocent, and that he was an unlikely candidate for a jihadist movement. Omar grew up as a frail and sickly child in Somalia, the youngest of five children who was raised mostly by his brothers, said attorney Andrew Birrell. He told the jury and alternates of 10 women and six men that Omar struggled to complete high school, and wasn't competent enough to help his brother run a grocery store.
Birrell described his client as "a man of modest gifts and resources who was not capable of running anything."
Omar came to the United States when he was 27, following the start of Somalia's civil war. He moved to Minnesota in 2000, and spent time working at a factory in Owatonna, Birrell said. One of his proudest accomplishments was scoring a job as a janitor, sweeping and cleaning the Abubakar mosque in Minneapolis, for $3 an hour.
Over his 20 years spent in the United States, Omar has not learned functional English and can't work a computer, Birrell said.
His brothers continued to financially support him, and helped pay for his first-ever return to his homeland, in January 2008. Although his paths would coincidentally cross with the al-Shabab fighters from Minneapolis, his intent was to get married in Somalia — not support terrorists, Birrell said.
Birrell said Omar was surprised to see two men from Minneapolis at a small bus station in the coastal city of Marka, where Omar was visiting his uncle. He was invited into the safe house, but did not spend the night there. Omar never gave anyone money, and did not discuss fighting, weapons, or al-Shabab, Birrell said.
Birrell said the three cooperating witnesses were testifying against Omar in exchange for receiving lighter sentences. They face life in prison without parole, Birrell said.
Omar's trial is at least three years in the making. After returning to the U.S., he left for the Muslim Hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in November 2008. On his way back to the United States, Omar stopped in the Netherlands in December 2008, where he sought political asylum.
Birrell said Omar made incriminating statements against himself to FBI agents who interviewed him in a Dutch prison, but only because he was frightened for his life. Omar spent a year and a half in a prison, where he was isolated for 23 hours a day, Birrell said.
Omar "got the message, and told the agents what they wanted him to say," Birrell said. He was finally extradited in August 2011 to face charges in Minnesota.
Birrell said his client has been looking forward to having his day in court.
The trial is expected to last three to four weeks.
• Follow Laura Yuen on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/laura_yuen