A third Twin Cities man recruited to fight for the terrorist group al-Shabab in Somalia told a federal jury on Wednesday he was convinced he would be a "good Muslim" by joining the war in his homeland.
Kamal Hassan, 27, said he wasn't very religious when he was brought into a secret plan in fall 2007 by other young men who gathered at a Minneapolis mosque. The young men told stories of Ethiopian troops who had been occupying Somalia at the invitation of the faltering Somali government.
They shared reports about the Ethiopian soldiers burning mosques and raping women in Somalia — a place Hassan had not set foot in since he was about 6, Hassan testified. The men told him it was his duty to return to the country of his birth and fight.
"I thought that I was being a good Muslim and Somalian by joining these men and going over there," he told the jury.
Grow the Future of Public Media
MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!
Hassan said traveling to a new part of the world also sounded like an "adventure," and that he wanted to visit his fiancée in the Somalia's capital of Mogadishu.
Hassan is testifying in the trial of Mahamud Said Omar, 46, who is accused of helping send fighters from Minnesota to Somalia. How Hassan's testimony directly relates to Omar has yet to be established. Hassan said he never saw Omar at planning meetings preceding the young mens' travels to Somalia, nor did Hassan ever see Omar in Somalia.
Hassan has been in federal custody since his arrest in 2009. He is a key government witness in the case.
The government believes that over a two-year span, more than 20 young Twin Cities men traveled to Somalia to join al-Shabab, which the United States considers a terrorist organization. They have accused Omar of helping send both money and fighters from Minnesota to aid the group.
On Wednesday, Chief Judge Michael Davis appeared incredulous at Hassan's story, at several points taking over the questioning from a federal prosecutor. Davis wanted to know how Hassan, who graduated from Wayzata High School and was living comfortably in a four-bedroom house in Plymouth with his parents and siblings, arrived at the decision to become a fighter in the perilous East African country.
"Tell me how you made the leap from talking to someone and picking up a gun and killing — with just one conversation," Davis inquired.
"Your honor, I can't explain what made me decide to go there..." Hassan started.
"You're going to have to tell me," Davis said.
Hassan explained the desire to enlist in the fighting grew over a series of secret meetings in Minneapolis in late 2007.
He also gave the most detail yet on some of the main organizers who he and other former recruits said were behind the plot.
Khalid Abshir was a quiet but formidable force in the group, Hassan testified. He appealed to the young recruits' sense of nationalism and had an uncle in Mogadishu who helped receive the fighters from Minnesota. Authorities believe Abshir, now 29, is still at large in Somalia.
Omer Abdi Mohamed and Ahmed Ali Omar were persuasive talkers and were widely seen as two of the group's leaders, Hassan told the jury. Mohamed in particular seemed to have a strong grasp of Islam and preached his own explanation of religious verses — especially those that addressed going to battle.
"I didn't have much knowledge about the Quran or the Hadith, and when he was interpreting verses, I believed what he was saying," Hassan testified.
Mohamed, now 27, pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists. Ahmed Ali Omar is a fugitive, believed to be in Somalia.
Prior to the first wave of departures in December 2007, Ahmed Ali Omar told the recruits to download a lecture by Anwar Al-Awlaki, a radical U.S-born cleric who helped build his following over the Internet. In one of the lectures, Al-Awlaki said Muslims were obligated to fight non-Muslims, or infidels, who invaded their countries.
He also said the fighters don't need permission from their parents to join the battles, Hassan recalled.
Parental permission to join the fighting in Somalia was something Hassan knew he would never receive. He told the courtroom how he deceived his father into thinking he was traveling to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for the Hajj pilgrimage, Hassan said.
Omer Abdi Mohamed even had a local travel agency doctor up a flight itinerary showing the fake route, Hassan said.
Once in Somalia, Hassan learned from phone calls to Minneapolis that his father was shaking down people at the mosque and other community members, demanding to know where his son was.
• Follow Laura Yuen on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/laura_yuen