First Mpls. terror trial begins

A man is charged with helping two U students and others travel to Somalia to join al-Shabab.

Katherine Lymn

The trial of a Minneapolis man charged with helping young men go to Somalia to fight with terrorist group al-Shabab began with jury selection Monday.

Mahamud Said Omar’s trial is the public’s first look into the massive FBI investigation into al-Shabab recruitment in Minneapolis.

Omar, 46, faces five counts, including providing support to terrorist organizations and conspiring to kill, maim or kidnap overseas. He’s the first of 18 men charged in the investigation to go to court. 

More than 20 young men have left Minneapolis, reportedly to join al-Shabab, since 2007. Minneapolis has been the center of a large-scale FBI investigation into the recruitment and radicalization of these men.

For its case against Omar, the government will call about 20 witnesses that include agents with the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty will lead the prosecution.

Omar’s defense, led by Minneapolis-based attorney Andrew Birrell, will call about seven witnesses, including members of Omar’s family. Omar will also take the stand in his own defense.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis is overseeing the trial, which is expected to last three to four weeks.

The government claims in its brief that Omar assisted a group of six men in buying tickets to Somalia at a Stadium Village travel agency Oct. 31, 2008. That came days after al-Shabab militant Shirwa Ahmed became the first known American suicide bomber when he carried out one of five coordinated bombings in Somalia in October 2008.

More broadly, the government alleges Omar was part of a group, along with Ahmed, that formed a “secretive plan” to get Somali men living in Minneapolis to return to Somalia to “conduct jihad” with Islamic extremists. The men would join extremists to fight against Ethiopian forces who had been invited into Somalia by its internationally supported transitional government, according to the brief.

According to the Associated Press, the defense will claim Omar is not guilty because he is mentally ill and doesn’t have the capacity to do what he is charged with.

Two of the men at the travel agency with Omar in 2008 were enrolled University of Minnesota students when they left the United States.

University students involved

One of the students, Mohamoud Hassan, reportedly died in Mogadishu in September 2009.

Friends told the Minnesota Daily in 2009 that Hassan showed no signs of planning to leave in the weeks leading up to his departure.

The other student, Abdisalan Hussein Ali, left days after Hassan. According to a Minneapolis police report, Ali’s cousin and mother reported him missing after he left to pray and go to school but didn’t return.

“For an unknown reason the family thinks [Ali] may have got on a plane and went somewhere,” according to the report.

Ali reportedly killed himself and others in a suicide bomb in Mogadishu in October 2011. At the time, the FBI still needed to confirm with DNA testing that the suicide bomber was Ali. In monthly calls from the Daily since then, Minneapolis FBI spokesman Kyle Loven has been unable to confirm whether remains were scientifically identified as Ali’s.

University student Isahaq Abdullahi helped Ali with his application for a pre-medical program the semester before he left for Somalia.

Abdullahi told the Daily last fall that Ali was an advocate of his community.

After growing up in a refugee camp, Ali wanted to become a doctor to go back to the camps in Somalia and help, Abdullahi said.

Ali was popular in high school, a friend to many.

“This guy, he was friends with boyfriends and girlfriends in this whole school,” said an Edison High School employee who requested confidentiality.

Teachers liked Ali because he was respectful and a positive influence. If a group of students was goofing off in class, Ali would be the one to tell them to knock it off, the employee said.

“They listened to him. He was just that way.”

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

News emerged last month that another former University student may have left to fight in Somalia.

The Associated Press cited Abdirizak Bihi, a member of the Cedar-Riverside community, as saying Omar Farah, 21, had contacted his own family to tell them he was in Somalia. The AP reported Farah attended the University for the 2010-11 school year studying electrical engineering.

Opening statements tomorrow

On Monday, attorneys for both Omar and the government questioned a courtroom of potential jurors to select the final jury. They asked jurors their opinions on Islam and Somalis, whether they owned guns and if they’d heard about the case before.

Just before recessing for the day, both sides settled on a 16-person jury pool made up of 10 women and six men.

The trial will proceed Tuesday with each side’s opening arguments. The government will then begin calling its witnesses to make its case against Omar.