Defense in Minn. terror trial grills government witness

Salah Osman Ahmed
Salah Osman Ahmed of New Brighton, Minn. testified against Mahamud Said Omar on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012.
Photo courtesy of Anoka County, file

Defense attorneys turned up the heat Tuesday on a key government witness testifying against a Minneapolis man accused of aiding the al-Shabab terror group in Somalia.

Salah Osman Ahmed is one of three former al-Shabab recruits from the Twin Cities testifying in the trial of Mahamud Said Omar, 46.

Ahmed told the jury that in 2008, Omar visited at an exclusive al-Shabab safe house where Ahmed and several other Twin Cities fighters were staying. Omar spent about four or five days there and provided the group with $1,000 to pay for two AK-47 assault rifles - one for himself and for a fellow Twin Cities traveler - and about an additional $800 for other expenses, Ahmed said.

But defense attorney Jon Hopeman noted that Ahmed has not always been true to his word. Upon cross-examination, Ahmed admitted he lied repeatedly to the FBI before his July 2009 arrest. The 29-year-old New Brighton man also acknowledged that by enlisting himself in the chaos of Somalia, he went with the intention to kill.

"You are a terrorist, aren't you?" said Hopeman, his voice rising.

"No, I am not," said Ahmed, wearing a plaid button-down shirt and tie.

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Hopeman: "Are you a junior terrorist?"

Ahmed: "No, I am not."

Hopeman: "Are you an assistant terrorist?"

"No, I am not," Ahmed replied.

Ahmed maintained that he believed he was fighting for his homeland.

He has already pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists by joining al-Shabab in a war against Ethiopian troops who began to occupy Somalia in 2006 to help bring order to the country. The military intervention by one of Somalia's arch rivals resulted in killings of innocent civilians, according to reports from human-rights groups.

On the stand, Ahmed agreed he was a criminal, but stopped short of calling himself a killer.

"I don't know if I'd call myself a killer, but going to war — there's a chance you might kill or get killed, defending your country," Ahmed said.

Hopeman later countered: "Your country was here, wasn't it?"

"Yes," replied Ahmed, a U.S. citizen.

He faces up to 15 years in prison and is hoping to receive a lighter sentence in exchange for cooperating with the government.

At the end of his testimony, Chief Judge Michael Davis tightened the conditions of Ahmed's release. He is required to be put back on location monitoring, give up his passport, and not leave the state without Davis' permission.

NEW DETAILS ON SUICIDE BOMBER

Ahmed said he never made it to the battlefield because he and another Twin Cities recruit, Abdifatah Yusuf Isse, escaped from al-Shabab in 2008 while helping set up a training camp in southern Somalia.

But another Minneapolis man wasn't so lucky.

Shirwa Ahmed also wanted to leave the camp but was "trapped" by al-Shabab, Salah Ahmed testified. In fact, Shirwa Ahmed — who went by a Somali nickname that roughly translated into "hairy man" for the tufts on his chest — had early doubts about joining the terror group, according to Salah Ahmed.

While he was in Saudi Arabia in 2008 for the Hajj pilgrimage, Shirwa Ahmed called the Minnesota recruits in Somalia by phone, saying he wasn't going to meet up with them after all, Salah Ahmed told the jury. Shirwa Ahmed said religious scholars in Mecca advised him not to participate in the fighting.

"I think you guys have been tricked," Salah Ahmed recalled him saying.

But a friend who enlisted with al-Shabab, Khalid Mohamed Abshir, eventually persuaded Shirwa Ahmed to change his mind, Salah Ahmed testified. Shirwa Ahmed reunited with the group at a safe house in southern Somalia and then made it to the training camp.

As Salah Ahmed and Isse were making their escape from al-Shabab, they ran into Shirwa Ahmed in the nearby city of Kismayo. Shirwa Ahmed apparently was on the same page.

"I want to go back to the United States," Shirwa Ahmed told the men. But his passport was in the hands of al-Shabab leaders in the Somali capital, and he couldn't return home without it.

"Instead, he went back to Mogadishu, so he was trapped," Salah Ahmed told the jury. He said the group's leaders refused to give Shirwa Ahmed his passport and talked him into returning to the camp.

Several months later, in October 2008, Shirwa Ahmed detonated himself in a series of coordinated attacks in northern Somalia that killed dozens of people, according to the FBI.

"He was the last person I ever thought about doing that," Salah Ahmed testified. "He wanted to come back."

ALLEGED RECRUITERS STILL AT LARGE

Ahmed is just one of three cooperating witnesses who maintain they were low-level recruits in comparison to the young men who hatched the secret plan to fight in Somalia. Ahmed, Abdifatah Yusuf Isse, and Kamal Hassan — who all Minnesota for Somalia in December 2007 — provided the jury with the names of a handful of young men who they said organized the fighters.

The organizers and the recruits gathered and had sleepovers at the Abubakar As-Saddique mosque in Minneapolis during the Ramadan holy month in fall 2007.

But none of the three witnesses accused Mahamud Omar, the defendant, of being a recruiter or a leader.

Although Omar worked at the mosque as a janitor, Ahmed said he never heard Omar give orders to the group, preach extremism, or try to convert Ahmed to the cause. Once in Somalia, Omar never made it to the training camp and had parted ways with the group before he could pick out an AK-47 that was assigned to him, Ahmed said.

Some of the alleged leaders named by the witnesses include Ahmed Ali Omar, 27, and Khalid Mohamed Abshir, 29. They were part of the first wave of travelers who left Minnesota in December 2007 to join al-Shabab.

Two other young men who were involved in the private discussions -- Abdiweli Yassin Isse and Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax -- left the United States in 2009, about a year after the federal investigation heated up.

Authorities believe all four men are still at large in Somalia.

Another facilitator, Omer Abdi Mohamed, 27, pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy to provide material support for terrorism. He is awaiting sentencing.

Testimony will continue Wednesday from Kamal Hassan, 27. Dressed in a bright orange sweatshirt and pants issued by the Sherburne County jail, Hassan told the jury Tuesday afternoon he was recruited to become a "foot soldier" for al-Shabab.

Early in the planning, Ahmed Ali Omar, one of the alleged leaders, warned Hassan to keep the trips to Somalia a secret — especially from senior members of the mosque, Hassan said.

"He said they'd encourage you to stay home and not go there," Hassan recalled.

Federal prosecutors say once in Somalia, Hassan remained with al-Shabab for several months and went on to participate in an armed ambush of Ethiopian troops.