Terror trial witnesses describe path from Minn. to holy war in Somalia

Salah Osman Ahmed, Abdifatah Yusuf Isse
Salah Osman Ahmed (left) and Abdifatah Yusuf Isse are cooperating witnesses testifying against defendant Mahamud Said Omar of Minneapolis.
MPR file photos

When Salah Osman Ahmed arrived in Somalia's war-battered capital as a new recruit for the extremist group al-Shabab, he was "scared to death."

There were rifle-toting men all over Mogadishu. The sound of gunfire was constant. And it only got worse when an al-Shabab leader showed the new recruits a video of fighters decapitating a man who the group said had tried to defect.

"They said, 'This guy's a traitor. This will happen to whoever leaves the group,'" Ahmed recalled.

The New Brighton man, now 29, recounted his 2007 initiation to al-Shabab during the federal terrorism trial of Mahamud Said Omar of Minneapolis. The 46-year-old defendant is accused of providing money to the Somali terror group and helping send two waves of Twin Cities men to fight Ethiopian troops occupying the country.

More: Minnesota men who joined 'jihad'

Both Ahmed and a second cooperating witness for the government, Abdifatah Yusuf Isse, said they were invited to travel to Somalia through a group of men who gathered at the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque in Minneapolis during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in 2007.

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Neither witness accused Omar, who worked at the mosque as a janitor, of being a ringleader in the secret plan to fight for al-Shabab.

Their stories provide a firsthand glimpse into how young Minnesota men were encouraged to wage a holy war in the Horn of Africa. Authorities believe more than 20 from the state joined al-Shabab. About nine are believed dead.

'NORMAL GUY' RALLIED TO WAR

When Isse moved from Seattle to the Twin Cities 2007 to be closer to his girlfriend, he said he arrived as "a normal guy." He liked girls, music, and Facebook. He was interested in travel, read economics books and was not very religious at first, he said.

But Isse, who was 23 at the time, was also bored and out of a job. He said he got caught up with the wrong crowd while spending most of his time at the mosque.

Mahamud Said Omar
Mahamud Said Omar, seen here in a family photo in front of his former Minneapolis apartment complex, is accused of providing money and people to al-Shabab, a U.S.-designated terror group at the center of much of the violence in Somalia.
Photo courtesy Abdullahi Said Omar

Two young men who also worshipped there approached him about going to Somalia. The "main guy" who recruited him was a persuasive leader, Ahmed Ali Omar, who appealed to Isse's faith and sense of nationalism, Isse said. Omar, no relation to the defendant, helped Isse arrange his travel plans and gave him cash to pay for the plane tickets. Now 27, Omar is believed to be at large in Somalia.

Isse identified the second man who introduced him to the conspiracy as "Farhan."

He recalled Farhan and Ahmed Ali Omar preaching their case with a powerful message: "If you wage jihad against nonbelievers who are taking over your country, and you die, you go to paradise."

Isse, who studied at Eastern Washington University for four years, said if it weren't for those two men, he never would have been caught up in the small exodus of Minnesotans who trained with al-Shabab. He said he doesn't consider himself a terrorist.

"Do you see yourself as a victim?" asked defense attorney Andrew Birrell upon cross-examination.

"I would say yes," Isse replied.

The 6-foot-2 witness, now 28, later elaborated: "I did some bad things, but I wouldn't call myself a criminal."

Salah Ahmed, the other witness, said another group of men, including Ahmed Ali Omar, won him over with a similar argument about martyrdom.

Initially, Salah Ahmed didn't think fighting was a good idea. But it grew on him, he said.

"To be honest, I don't know what I was thinking, but I said, 'OK, let's go. Let's stop the Ethiopians taking over the country,'" said Ahmed, a graduate of Harding High School in St. Paul.

Mahmud Omar's defense team has argued that the witnesses are receiving "extraordinary favors" from the government in exchange for their testimony. Isse, for example, initially faced life in prison if convicted of two terror-related charges. But as part of his plea deal, one count was dropped. He now faces up to 15 years but is hoping to have his sentence reduced by providing what's known as "substantial assistance" to the government.

DEFENDANT ON WIRETAPS

Authorities have not called Omar a ringleader but said he did play a role.

This week, prosecutors played audio of seven phone calls intercepted by the FBI. In November 2008, after Isse left al-Shabab and returned to Seattle, Omar describes a backlash in the Somali-American community in Minneapolis after a second wave of new fighters, including some teen-agers, had departed for Somalia to join al-Shabab.

Searching for al-Shabab
This September 2012 handout photo released by the African Union-United Nations Information Support Team in May shows a truck carrying Ugandan soldiers serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia as they search for the al-Qaeda affiliated extremist group al-Shabaab.
AFP/AFP/Getty Images

"Wow," Omar tells Isse. "The whole city was in uproar."

Omar and Isse both discussed their desire to leave the United States. On one wiretap, Omar is heard giving Isse advice on how to book plane tickets to Somalia and arrange travel visas. Omar also provided Isse with the phone number to an al-Shabab contact in Mogadishu.

Omar has maintained his innocence. His attorneys have described their client as a simple laborer lacking the sophistication required for facilitating a jihadist movement.

Isse studied economics in college but said he relied on Omar for advice because "he had more knowledge" about traveling.

"Who's the one asking for the information?" asked Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty, referring to a conversation between the two men.

"Me," Isse replied.

"Who's the one giving the information?" Docherty said.

"The defendant," Isse said.

The conversations were mostly in Somali. Transcripts in English were shown to the jurors. Isse also testified that the men spoke in code to avoid drawing government attention.

After he and fellow traveler Salah Ahmed returned to the United States, the two chatted in October 2008, the same day another Minneapolis man in their group killed himself in a suicide bombing in Somalia.

Issse said on the wiretap that Shirwa Ahmed, the bomber, "got married" -- code for becoming a martyr.

Isse testified that the way Shirwa Ahmed died shocked him.

"He wasn't the type of guy who would do such a thing," Isse said.

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