Relatives testify in Somali terror trial

Jamal Sheikh Bana was a hard-working college student from Minneapolis, but the 19-year-old man wouldn't have been able to function in his native Somalia without help, his mother told a federal jury Wednesday.

Bana hardly knew his homeland, having left the country when he was younger than 2 years, said his mother, Abayte Ahmed. Yet in November 2008, he was among a group of six young men from Minneapolis who the government alleges surreptitiously traveled to Somalia to fight for the ruthless terror group al-Shabab.

Ahmed's tearful recollections came on the second day of testimony in the trial of Mahamud Said Omar. Prosecutors allege the former mosque janitor brought the six men, including Bana, to a Minneapolis travel agency in 2008 to help them secure their plane tickets.

Omar, 46, is indicted on five terror-related charges, including conspiring to kill or maim others overseas. His attorneys maintain he is innocent, and describe him as a gentle, simple janitor who was incapable of organizing fighters for a holy war.

Court testimony continues Thursday with two cooperating witnesses, Salah Osman Ahmed and Abdifatah Isse. The two men have pleaded guilty to traveling to Somalia to join al-Shabab in 2007 and are awaiting sentencing. They are expected to testify seeing Omar, the defendant, at an al-Shabab safe house in 2008.

But Wednesday was an opportunity for the government to show the human toll of al-Shabab recruitment in the Twin Cities. The last time Ahmed she saw her son was the morning of Nov. 3, 2008. She said he left the house at his usual time of 5 a.m. to pray and go to school, but Bana never returned home.

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"So he just disappeared, right?" said assistant U.S. Attorney LeeAnn Bell.

"Yeah," Ahmed replied, dabbing her eyes.

Several months later, Ahmed and her husband learned over the Internet that Bana was killed. Bell, the prosecutor, showed her bloody photos of Bana's face after he was shot in the head. Ahmed confirmed it was him, but not before jerking away and burying her face into a tissue.

But upon cross-examination, she said she had never seen Omar, the defendant, before Wednesday. She said the night before her son left, Bana told her he was going to see a male friend for dinner, but didn't identify the friend.

The federal government has charged Omar with funneling both cash and men to al-Shabab. It's a federal crime to support a group that the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.

Also Wednesday, the sister of a Minneapolis man who went on to become a suicide bomber in Somalia publicly shared her story for the first time.

Hibo Ahmed testified that she had no idea her younger brother Shirwa Ahmed was in Somalia when she received a phone call in November 2008; she believed he was somewhere in the Middle East studying.

The man on the phone reported that Shirwa had died in a martyr attack, Ahmed recalled.

Ahmed sought more information by calling a phone number provided to her with a Minneapolis area code of 612. A man who went by the name "Zakaria" confirmed Shirwa Ahmed had been in Somalia, but knew little about how he died -- other than that he was assigned a "task."

The FBI later confirmed that the remains of an October, 29, 2008, suicide bombing in Somalia belonged to Hibo Ahmed's brother.

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