Two former al-Shabab members testified in the Omar trial Thursday and Friday about their travel to Somalia to join the terrorist organization.
The men took the stand on behalf of the U.S. government in its trial against Mahamud Said Omar, who’s accused of helping a group of Minneapolis men travel to Somalia to join al-Shabab. The witnesses left Minneapolis in the first wave of departures in late 2007.
Omar is charged with helping a different group of men travel to Somalia in November 2008. The group includes two former University of Minnesota students; both are presumed dead.
Abdifatah Yusuf Isse, 27, testified that he saw Omar hand $500 cash to another man at a private meeting in a Minneapolis restaurant to pay for the travel expenses to Somalia. He also said Omar eventually joined him at a small safe house in Somalia several months later.
Both of the men are working to get shorter sentences in exchange for testifying for the government — something Omar’s defense says makes both untrustworthy.
When he had the chance to question Isse, defense attorney Andrew Birrell also pointed out inconsistencies in Isse’s statements over time, like why Isse said he went to Somalia and the number of times he said he’s met with FBI agents since being arrested.
The government showed phone conversations between Isse and Omar from 2008. During one of them, Omar talked about helping more men travel to Somalia and openly admitted to providing one man with $100.
Often in the calls, the men would use code for discussing travel plans and fighting in Somalia, Isse explained.
Phrases like, “I heard he got married,” meant a man died or was killed in action. Isse said the men used code because they were worried about all the commotion surrounding Somalia and feared the government would catch them if they spoke directly.
From Minneapolis to Marka
Many of the men involved started plotting at the Abubakar as-Saddique mosque during Ramadan in 2007.
The men spent many nights during Ramadan that year sleeping at the mosque and, it turns out, planning the travels back to Somalia.
The government has made clear in its case that the mosque leadership — and the men’s families — were unaware of the men’s plans.
Witness and former al-Shabab member Salah Osman Ahmed, 29, said meetings to discuss the plans would take place in the mosque’s second level, in restaurants or even in cars in the mosque’s parking lot, all to keep the plan secret.
Defendant Omar was a janitor at the mosque during this time.
Isse said a man at the mosque named Farhan began talking to him and the other men about “waging jihad” against Ethiopian troops who had occupied Somalia. He said he’d never thought of returning to Somalia before he met Farhan, but after several conversations, he decided he wanted to fight for al-Shabab.
Ahmed said he was first approached by another man charged in the investigation, Ahmed Ali Omar, who asked him, “Have you heard about what’s going on in Somalia?”
Ahmed said at first he wasn’t sure about going.
“To be honest I don’t know what I was thinking” when he did decide to go, he said.
The men raised money for the airline tickets by fundraising door-to-door in the community asking for donations to support a mosque, Isse said.
The anger against Ethiopian forces in their home country was a constant in the men’s travels. Al-Shabab mainly fights against the Ethiopian forces that the transitional Somali government brought in to help stabilize the country.
“Every time we had a meeting, we talked about Somalia, how things are,” Ahmed said.
He said when he joined the plans, he knew he was going to try to kill Ethiopians in Somalia and that they would try to kill him.
Ahmed also mentioned how, when he first arrived in Somalia, the man that was arranging their stay showed a video of another man being decapitated.
The man showed it as an example of what happens to men who are traitors to al-Shabab.
“It was kinda scary stuff,” Ahmed said.
The trial will resume Tuesday after a three-day weekend with more from Ahmed.