A Minnesota man who traveled to Somalia to fight Ethiopian troops told a federal jury Thursday it was the biggest mistake of his life.
Kamal Said Hassan, 27, is testifying in the trial of Mahamud Said Omar. The 46-year-old Omar is accused of helping steer cash and fighters from Minneapolis to the terror group.
Hassan, a naturalized U.S. citizen who attended Wayzata High School and Minneapolis Community and Technical College, said he was recruited to fight by a group of other young men he met at a Minneapolis mosque.
"At the time, there were a lot of circumstances and other things happening in my life that contributed to my decision," Hassan told the jury upon cross-examination. "I have no excuse for doing any of that. It was the biggest mistake I've made."
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"It's quite beyond a mistake," countered Omar's defense attorney Jon Hopeman. "You became a terrorist, right?
"Um, yes, sir," Hassan said.
Hassan said he never saw Omar at any of the secret meetings that preceded the young men's departures in late 2007. But he said once in Somalia, he recalled Omar telling Hassan by phone he purchased some guns and would reunite with the young fighters at an al-Shabab training camp. But Omar never made it to the camp.
Hassan is one of three former al-Shabab recruits from the Twin Cities hoping to receive lighter sentences in exchange for testifying in Omar's trial. Hassan has pleaded guilty to terror-related charges and lying to the FBI. He faces up to 38 years in prison.
Omar maintains his innocence. His attorneys note Hassan has lied repeatedly to the FBI, even after he agreed to a plea deal and started cooperating with the government. He went undercover for about six months in 2009, living in a St. Louis Park home under the constant watch of the FBI, as he emailed and called al-Shabab contacts in Somalia.
Also on Thursday, Hassan provided more details of a fumbled al-Shabab attack against Ethiopian troops that he was involved with in July 2008.
Another Minneapolis recruit, Shirwa Ahmed, was one of two men specializing in rocket-propelled grenades. Ahmed and the other man were instructed to open fire first, and then the rest of the al-Shabab squad would shoot their AK-47 rifles, Hassan said.
But neither grenade launcher worked.
After exchanging gunfire with the Ethiopian soldiers, Al-Shabab retreated from the ambush, which killed two of its men. To Hassan's knowledge, no Ethiopian soldiers died in the attack.
Omar's attorney, Hopeman, asked about Hassan's frame of mind at the time.
"Are you beginning to wonder what kind of outfit you're working with?" Hopeman asked Hassan.
"I am, sir," Hassan replied.