Government introduces final terror witness

Acquaintances of former al-Shabab fighters and an FBI agent testified, too.

Katherine Lymn

After introducing its key witness Monday, the U.S. government has laid out over nine days almost its entire case against a Minneapolis man charged with helping other local men return to Somalia to join terrorist group al-Shabab.

Kiann VanDenover, with the Minneapolis FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, began her testimony Monday.

VanDenover headed the investigation into the recruitment of young Minneapolis men and will tell the jury about Mahamud Said Omar’s first interviews with the FBI. They took place in the Netherlands, where he was seeking asylum but was first
arrested.

She is the central witness of a case that has included former al-Shabab fighters, family members of other former fighters and FBI agents. The government has tried to paint a picture of a man who organized and funded al-Shabab, including the travel expenses of some trips to Somalia.

Of the six men Said is accused of helping, two were enrolled at the University of Minnesota when they left; both are now presumed dead.

Earlier Monday, Ahmed Hussein Mahamud told the jury about his role in sending money to his best friend, Abdikadir Ali Abdi, who was in the group of Minneapolis men that left to join al-Shabab in November 2008.

Mahamud said he was also involved in the group’s fundraising efforts, which included door-knocking at Cedar-Riverside apartment buildings under the false pretense of collecting money for orphans.

“We told people that because anybody would help orphans but not everybody would help al-Shabab,” Mahamud said.

He seemed to turn from a witness to defendant when the judge took over and pressed Mahamud on why he went from “peace to terror” and began supporting al-Shabab.

“My friend asked me to help them, and I couldn’t say no,” he answered to Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis.

“I didn’t want to lose friendship.”

Defense attorney Andrew Birrell emphasized that according to Mahamud’s testimony, Omar had never gone fundraising.

An FBI special agent also testified Monday about the network of phone calls between defendant Omar and the men that left Minneapolis in 2008. There are hundreds of calls, and they spike the day after al-Shabab fighter Shirwa Ahmed became the first-known American suicide bomber, killing himself and others in Somalia.

The six men, including the two University students, also called each other often, FBI agent Casey Villarreal reported.

The government presented one of Villarreal’s charts, which shows that between Oct. 22 and Nov. 4, 2008 — when all six of the last travelers, including the University students and Abdi, left — Omar had almost daily calls with the six men.

The address listed on Omar’s cellphone records corresponds to a Riverside Plaza apartment near the University’s West Bank.

Defense attorney Paul Dworak pointed out that Villarreal couldn’t prove it was Omar using the phone — someone could’ve borrowed it — or give any clue as to the context of the conversations.

The government also filed a motion to try and limit the testimony from three or more of Omar’s siblings. The U.S. attorneys say the testimony, if not limited, could include hearsay or inappropriate testimony about Omar’s
character.

In its motion, the government released new material including call transcripts that show Omar’s brothers encouraging him to lie to
authorities.

The trial resumes Tuesday with more from VanDenover.