Stage is set for terror trial arguments

A Mpls. man is charged with helping recruit men for al-Shabab.

Katherine Lymn

A jury heard opening arguments Tuesday in the trial for Minneapolis man Mahamud Said Omar, who’s charged with helping local men travel to Somalia to join terrorist group al-Shabab.

The prosecution said it would build its case with phone records and witnesses that show Omar had contact with six men who left for Somalia in fall 2008. The defense said it’s a different story, one of a man incapable of organizing such an effort.

The trial is the public’s first look at the massive FBI investigation into al-Shabab recruitment of more than 20 young men in Minneapolis. Witnesses will include men that planned the exodus back to Somalia and attended the al-Shabab training camp there. Evidence will include phone calls allegedly between Omar and alleged recruits.

Assistant U.S. attorney Charles Kovats painted the picture of a small group of Minneapolis men that in fall 2007 started planning a return to Somalia to fight.

Somalia and Ethiopia already had a contentious relationship, Kovats explained, so when Ethiopian troops entered Somalia, there was outrage there and in the Somali community in Minneapolis.

The men’s outrage propelled them to plan a return to Somalia to join forces with rebel organization al-Shabab, Kovats said.

This group would allegedly hold secret meetings at a mosque in south Minneapolis and at two restaurants on Lake Street.

At some point Omar, then a janitor at the mosque, got involved, Kovats said. Omar was at one of the Lake Street restaurant meetings, the government claims.

Three of the men who planned the return to Somalia in 2007 will testify against Omar.

The prosecution showed a chart of phone calls between Omar and six men that left for Somalia in fall 2008, including Mohamoud Hassan and Abdisalan Ali, University of Minnesota students at the time. In its case brief, the government says Omar accompanied these two and four others to a travel agency near the University campus to buy tickets to Somalia.

He made an unusually high number of calls the day after Shirwa Ahmed, one of the men who initiated the Minneapolis recruitment, killed himself in a suicide bombing in Somalia. Ahmed is the first known American suicide bomber.

Kovats portrayed the men who left for Somalia as victims — their families brought them to America to avoid the strife of an unstable Somalia, he said, but Omar “turned them around,” directing them back to their home country to fight.

Hassan, who was a junior studying civil engineering at the University when he left for Somalia, reportedly died in Mogadishu fighting in 2009.

A man, reportedly Ali, killed himself and others in a suicide bomb there in October 2011. The FBI has been unable to confirm that Ali has been officially identified via DNA testing.

Ali and Omar were at the same November 2008 dinner held for the men who would soon leave for Somalia, according to the government’s case brief.

 ‘A man of modest gifts’

Omar is innocent by way of incompetence, the defense said.

Head defense attorney Andrew Birrell described Omar as “a man of modest gifts and resources who is not capable of running anything.”

Birrell said the three men from that 2007 planning group testifying against Omar are not to be trusted because the government is giving them lower sentences in return for their cooperation.

The government also said Omar, in a 2008 trip to Somalia, gave al-Shabab fighters money to buy weapons and gave money to a woman who ran a safe house.

But to prove Omar did not have the money to help fund al-Shabab, the defense will show many receipts for money Omar’s brother wired to him.

By being held for a year and a half in a Netherlands prison and threatened with lengthy sentences, Omar was also coerced into saying the things the government is now using against him, Birrell said.

“Mr. Omar has been looking forward to his day in court” to get a fair trial, Birrell said.

 

Jury to get look at al-Shabab

The government’s opening argument was a glimpse into just how extensive the Minneapolis recruitment planning was and how deeply the FBI investigated it over the past four years.

The men excluded friends and family from their plans, Kovats said. The south Minneapolis mosque leaders didn’t know about their secret meetings. The men planned on traveling in singles or pairs to avoid raising alarm.

Some of the men helped raise money in August 2008 by door-knocking at high-rise apartments in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood and saying they were collecting money for orphans, he said.

The prosecution and defense both reference a Marka, Somalia residence, but the stories don’t line up.

The government says Omar went to Marka because that’s where the al-Shabab safe house was.

But the defense says Omar went to Somalia to get married. He passed through Marka on the way to the wedding and was “very surprised” when he ran into friends from his Minneapolis mosque there. He went to their residence with them twice, but Birrell said there was no discussion of al-Shabab.