MINNEAPOLIS — A Minneapolis man helped young Somali expatriates return to the war-torn country they left years ago so they could join a terrorist group fighting the U.N.-backed government there, a prosecutor said Tuesday at the outset of the man's trial.
Mahamud Said Omar, 46, faces five terror-related counts. Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Kovats said during his opening statements that the case is about a pipeline of men and money between Minnesota and al-Shabab, a U.S.-designated terrorist group linked to al-Qaida that is blamed for much of the violence in Somalia.
Omar's defense attorney, Andrew Birrell, told the jury that the mosque janitor never conspired against the United States, and the evidence will show he is not guilty.
"He has never organized anything," Birrell said.
Since 2007, more than 20 young men are believed to have left Minnesota for the East African nation, presumably to take up arms with al-Shabab. The departures shook the Somali community in Minnesota, which is the largest in the United States.
Kovats said many of the young men who returned to Somalia, including some who were as young as 17, came to the U.S. as children as their families hoped for a safer life.
"The defendant turned them around and directed them into this pipeline — back into the violence of Somalia, Kovats said.
Kovats said three of the men who traveled to Somalia will testify about their experiences with Omar and al-Shabab. Birrell told jurors those men were offered deals by the government to avoid life sentences, and they should not be believed.
"These men, you will see, have lied in the most terrible ways against Mr. Omar," Birrell said.
Omar, who came to the U.S. in 1993 and is a permanent resident, insists he is innocent of the charges, which include conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists. He could face life in prison if convicted.
Prosecutors say Omar gave money to men who traveled to Somalia in 2007 and went there himself in early 2008. In their account, Omar stayed at a safe house in the city of Marka with others who had come from Minnesota — including Shirwa Ahmed, who the FBI said was "radicalized" in Minneapolis and would later become the first known U.S. citizen to carry out a suicide bombing.
At the safe house, Omar gave provisions to men and discussed training and fighting for al-Shabab, prosecutors contend. They say Omar also gave fighters hundreds of dollars they spent buying AK-47 assault rifles.
Birrell told jurors Omar went to Somalia to get married, and that he never spent the night at the safe house. He said Omar merely ran into some Minneapolis men while traveling in Somalia and was invited to visit.
Birrell said Omar didn't give anyone in the house money or talk about al-Shabab or fighting. He said his client has been sickly since he was young and has had a hard time adapting to life in America.
Eighteen men have been charged in the Minnesota case, but Omar is the first to go to trial. Seven men pleaded guilty, while others are presumed to be out of the country or dead.
A congressional investigation last year put the number of al-Shabab supporters higher, estimating that more than 40 people left the U.S. to join the terror group.
Omar returned to the United States in April 2008 and, prosecutors say, continued to help al-Shabab. He accompanied two travelers to the Minneapolis airport in August 2008.
At least initially, many of the Minnesota men appeared to have been motivated by patriotism. In late 2006, Ethiopian soldiers were brought into Somalia by its weak U.N.-backed government, and many Somalis saw that as an invasion. By fall 2007, some were holding secret meetings at Minneapolis mosques and homes, plotting ways to fight the Ethiopians, court documents said.
Kovats said Tuesday those secret meetings happened at an area mosque and restaurants; and those who weren't part of the plan were excluded.
"They didn't want anybody to find out and get in the way of their plan," Kovats said.
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