Some of the most incriminating evidence against a Minneapolis man accused of aiding a Somali terror group appears to have come from his own statements to the FBI.
Mahamud Said Omar told the federal agents he was a "team leader" for al-Shabab who escorted two young Twin Cities men to the airport in August 2008, knowing they were to join the extremist militia once they arrived in Somalia, FBI Special Agent Kiann VanDenover told a federal court jury Tuesday.
When the FBI asked the former mosque janitor last year if there were future waves of young men preparing to travel to Somalia to fight for al-Shabab, Omar laughed and told the agents: "We could have formed other groups, but you chased us out," VanDenover told the jury.
It is a federal crime to aid and abet a foreign terrorist organization. Federal authorities have charged Omar with five terror-related counts, including providing material support to al-Shabab. Prosecutors say he helped steer both money and men from Minnesota to the radical insurgents in his native Somalia.
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!
But Omar's attorneys say he was under duress and feared for his life when FBI agents questioned him — and that they blindfolded Omar and put him into a diaper when extraditing him from the Netherlands to the United States. Omar spoke during eight interviews while he was in custody in the Netherlands, where he was seeking asylum.
Following his early-morning arrest in November 2009, Dutch law enforcement placed a bag over Omar's head before putting him in the police car, VanDenover told the jury. She was not present during the arrest, but heard later that Omar had thrown up in the squad car.
But later that day, as he met for the first time two FBI agents and an assistant U.S. attorney, he appeared well and chatted at length through interpreters, VanDenover testified. During a second interview the next day, though, Omar said he was sick — but could not explain whether the illness was physical or mental, or where he was hurting.
Omar told the agents "things were not going well" in his head, and he was having a hard time remembering what he said the day before, VanDenover recalled under cross-examination.
At the time, federal agents viewed Omar as a potential key piece to the puzzle of a small exodus of Twin Cities men who left to join al-Shabab. Although they had secured cooperation from three early recruits, they "desperately needed" Omar's help to explain the second wave of disappearances in 2008, VanDenover testified.
He was more forthcoming — but often inconsistent — over a series of six interviews in the spring of 2011 from a maximum-security wing at the Vught prison in the southern Netherlands where he was being held. He cried three times during the interviews and told the FBI things the agents knew to be untrue, she said.
After initially describing himself as an al-Shabab team leader, Omar backed off that claim the following day, Vandenover said. But he also admitted he went to Somalia to join al-Shabab.
VanDenover said Omar expressed regret for taking Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan, then 20, and Mustafa Salat, then 18, to the airport in August 2008.
"He said it was one of the greatest mistakes he made," VanDenover said. "He said he knew they were going to join al-Shabab."
Prosecutors presented evidence from a money-transfer shop that show Omar wired $300 to a man previous witnesses at trial described as an al-Shabab contact in Mogadishu in the summer of 2008.
Omar also admitted to accompanying five additional al-Shabab recruits — including some teenagers — to a Minneapolis travel agency, VanDenover testified.
The defendant told the agents that Ahmed Ali Omar, whom government witnesses have described as one of the main leaders of the conspiracy, directed Mahamud Omar to help the young men secure their tickets. The FBI tracked down phone records showing the two men exchanged texts around that time.
Omar told the agents that one of the young travelers, Jamal Bana, used financial aid money from Normandale Community College to finance his trip, Vandenover said.
The night before the group left in November 2008, Omar said he attended a going-away party for the men, VanDenover told the jury.
When questioned by defense attorney Andrew Birrell, VanDenover acknowledged some of the unusual circumstances regarding Omar's extradition to the United States in 2011, including the agents' use of a blindfold and diaper.
She also confirmed that much of the evidence that helped inform the FBI interviews with Omar came from three al-Shabab recruits cooperating with the government who had been caught lying to the FBI.
Defense attorneys have argued that their client was a simple-minded janitor incapable of running anything. They've also alluded to his health problems and reminded VanDenover that he collapsed in federal court in 2011 after an apparent seizure.
But VanDenover said Omar told her he owned a dollar store on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis several years ago; it is now owned by his brother.
VanDenover is the last witness to be called by government prosecutors. The defense is not expected to put forth a case. Defense attorneys had initially indicated they might call Omar's brothers to testify. But prosecutors over the weekend alleged that earlier this year, two of Omar's brothers were recorded speaking to him by phone at the Anoka County jail, coaching him to lie in court. The government warned that if the brothers took the stand, prosecutors would grill them about the jail calls.
Closing arguments will be heard Wednesday morning. A jury panel of nine women and five men, including alternates, will likely receive the case Wednesday afternoon.
• Follow Laura Yuen on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/laura_yuen