If it weren't for a skin rash, two Twin Cities men who traveled to Somalia to join radical insurgents might still be there today.
Instead, the young men are cooperating witnesses for the federal government in the trial of a 46-year-old former janitor from Minneapolis. Defendant Mahamud Said Omar is accused of helping send cash and fighters from Minnesota to the Somali terror group al-Shabab.
The first cooperating witness, Abdifatah Yusuf Isse, 28, testified Thursday that he found himself "in the middle of nowhere" when he arrived at an intended al-Shabab training camp in 2008 in southern Somalia.
Just months before, Isse - who hadn't set foot in his native Somalia since he was 8 - had been unemployed and living with his girlfriend's cousin in Robbinsdale.
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• More: Minnesota men who joined 'jihad'
There wasn't much at the training site except a bunch of trees, Isse recalled. He and the other al-Shabab recruits, including several others from the Twin Cities, were ordered to chop them down to clear the way for the camp and perform other kinds of manual labor.
The men ate two meals a day of beans and rice. There were no buildings. No tents. At night, the camp leaders told the men to "make ourselves comfortable" - by sleeping on the ground, Isse recalled.
Isse found his ticket out when his friend, Salah Osman Ahmed of New Brighton, broke into a rash. Ahmed received permission from the camp's leader to seek medical treatment in the city of Kismayo, and Isse was allowed to accompany him. The two Minnesotans had been at the camp only for about a week.
"I can't leave my friend alone," Isse recalled telling the camp leader.
Isse and Ahmed eventually made their way to northern Somalia and then back to the United States later that year.
Isse's account provides the most detail yet on the Minneapolis recruits' travels in Somalia, and the secret planning that preceded their departures.
He was arrested in February 2009 in Seattle while trying to board a plane to Tanzania, after the FBI investigation into al-Shabab recruitment heated up and authorities were closing in him. He pleaded guilty three years ago to providing material support to al-Shabab.
And on Thursday, dressed in a dark suit before the jury, he acknowledged he's hoping to receive a lighter sentence in exchange for his testimony against Omar. He said Omar provided hundreds of dollars in cash and to help pay for the young men's travels.
Before the first fighters left Minneapolis in 2007, about a dozen men who were spending overnight stays a local mosque during the end of Ramadan. They held secret conversations about going to Somalia to "wage jihad" against Ethiopian troops who were occupying the country, Isse said. Moahamud Omar, the defendant, worked at the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque as a janitor.
Many Somalis consider Ethiopia an archrival, and human-rights groups reported Ethiopian soldiers were raping and killing innocent civilians.
The Minneapolis men met behind closed doors at the mosque, in an empty second floor above a pizza parlor, and in cars, Isse said.
"We were just keeping the whole mission secret from other people," he said.
At the time, Isse said he knew virtually nothing about al-Shabab, other than that the group was fighting the Ethiopian soldiers.
Al-Shabab, he said, "was just a name" to him.
But he told Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty that by agreeing to fight a holy war in Somalia, he knew he could be killed, and that he might kill others.
At a Lake Street restaurant in Minneapolis, Isse said he saw Omar hand about $500 to another al-Shabab recruit, Ali Ahmed Omar, and wished the men good luck on their journey to Somalia. The cash was to be used as pocket money for the travelers to help them buy whatever they needed, "like Colgate," clothing and hotel stays, he said.
Prosecutors allege Mahamud Omar helped al-Shabab by taking other men to the airport and helping secure their plane tickets. But Omar's attorneys say their client is innocent, and that he was too broke and unsophisticated to direct fighters and cash to a terrorist group.
The government alleges more than 20 Minnesota men, as young as 17, left to join al-Shabab. Federal prosecutors believe as many as nine are dead.
Isse, who is tall with a chiseled face, recalled the less glamorous side of being an al-Shabab enlistee. Shortly after arriving in Somalia, he and the man he traveled with, Ahmed Ali Omar, were ordered to pick new names for themselves for security reasons, and were asked to give up their travel documents. They learned about AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, he said.
But they also spent their nights sleeping in a crowded house, with four mattresses in a room, in the port city of Marka. The safe house was run by a woman who went by the name of "Umma Shabab," or "mother of the youth," Isse said.
The defendant, Mahamud Omar, reunited with the Twin Cities men at the safe house and stayed there for about a week, Isse said. Only people affiliated with al-Shabab were known to visit the house.
At a second safe house in the Somali town of Baarawe, the Minnesota men were issued AK-47 rifles, each barrel marked with their name written on masking tape. One was set aside for Omar, but he had parted ways with the group by then, Isse said.
The defense will cross-examine Isse Friday.
The jury will hear next from Salah Ahmed, the New Brighton man who walked away from al-Shabab by way of his skin rash.
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