The first indictments in a major counterterrorism investigation became public Monday when a Twin Cities Somali man appeared in federal court on charges of providing support to terrorists and conspiracy to "kill, kidnap, maim or injure" people in foreign countries.
A federal grand jury had indicted Salah Osman Ahmed, 26, of Brooklyn Park, and Abdifatah Yusuf Isse, of Seattle, in February, but the indictments were kept sealed until Ahmed appeared Monday afternoon before Magistrate Judge Susan Richard Nelson.
Special agent E.K. Wilson confirmed Monday that the indictments of Isse and Ahmed are connected to a major federal investigation into the disappearance of up to 20 local men of Somali descent. It is believed that the Minnesota men may have been recruited by terrorists to return to their families' homeland to fight in the continuing civil war there. Since October, at least four have died there.
"It is related to the ongoing investigation," Wilson said of the charges unsealed Monday.
The alleged time frame of Isse and Ahmed's involvement overlaps the period when several of the Twin Cities men disappeared. The first wave of young men to leave Minneapolis for Somalia began in early 2007. A second wave is believed to have left in the late summer and late fall of 2008.
According to the indictment, federal investigators allege the men "provided material support and resources, namely personnel, including themselves, knowing and intending that the material support and resources were to be used in preparation for and to carry out a conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim or injure persons in a foreign country" from September 2007 through December 2008.
Traveling to Somalia
Isse traveled to Somalia in 2007, according to Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center. Isse returned from Somalia, first to Minneapolis, then back to Seattle, where he was arrested, Jamal said. Early this year, he was returned to Minneapolis, where he has been held ever since. Jamal said Isse's parents contacted him for help when their son was taken into custody.
According to the indictment, Ahmed boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 56 from the Twin Cities to Amsterdam, Netherlands, with a final destination of Somalia on Dec. 6, 2007. The indictment contained no more details of their alleged conspiracy.
During his initial appearance, Ahmed told the judge that he works as a part-time security guard, making $800 a month, and lives with his mother in Brooklyn Park.
Ahmed was arrested on his way to work Saturday and appeared in court wearing his black security guard uniform. A call to the security company seeking comment Monday afternoon was not immediately returned.
Ahmed told the judge he owns no property, no car and pays rent to his mother. The judge ruled that he qualified for a federal public defender.
Ahmed's next appearance is scheduled for Thursday afternoon, at which time the judge will hold a detention hearing.
After the hearing, Ahmed's attorney, James Ostgard, said he was not yet completely familiar with the case. But, he said, "My client will be pleading not guilty."
Paul Engh, Isse's attorney, said national security concerns prohibit him from talking about details of the case. He confirmed that he has represented Isse since February.
Assistant U.S. Attorney W. Anders Folk would not comment on the case following the hearing. David Anderson, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Minneapolis, also said officials there would have no comment.
But Jamal said: "We are interested in this case and hopefully, the masterminds of these indoctrinations will be brought to justice."
News of the indictments surprised and pleased some in the Twin Cities Somali community, the largest in the nation.
"I think we definitely have been under a lot of pressure," said Abdisalam Adam, director of Dar Al-Hijrah in Minneapolis' Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. "I do see the community is really waiting for some kind of break in the situation."
"It's good news to us," said Abdirizak Bihi, uncle of Burhan Hassan, an 18-year-old Minneapolis man who died in June in Somalia after being shot in the head. "The community just wants to be done with this."
Bihi said the three deaths over the past month -- of Hassan in June and Jamal Bana and Zakaria Maruf this past weekend -- have shaken the relatives of the other missing men.
"They are not sleeping and are glued to the Internet and radio and making phone calls," he said. "The fighting is fierce. ... It's really bad. Nobody is really optimistic about their kids right now."
The first Minnesota man known to have died after returning to Somalia was Shirwa Ahmed, 26, of Minneapolis, who blew himself up in a suicide attack in northern Somalia in late October.
Ahmed's remains were returned to Minnesota late last year for burial. But FBI officials have not confirmed the three most recent deaths.
Zienab Bihie, the mother of Burhan Hassan, said last week that she has been told by friends and relatives in Somalia that her son died under very different circumstances -- he was shot in the head and killed for refusing an order, presumably by the same al-Shabaab fighters who allegedly recruited him.
Al-Shabaab has been characterized by federal officials as a terrorist organization linked to Al-Qaida.
The circumstances surrounding the deaths of Bana, 20, and Maruf, 30, are less clear.
Bana, who was also shot in the head, may have been killed during fierce fighting over the weekend among African Union peacekeepers, government forces and al-Shabaab in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, Bihi said. It is rumored that Maruf, too, was shot, possibly near Bana's body.
Bihi said that from what he's been told from sources in Mogadishu, the Minnesota recruits were together in a compound that may have come under attack by Somali government forces. He said he has not been able to confirm the information.
Nevertheless, the deaths have fueled persistent rumors in the Twin Cities Somali community in recent days that several other young men from Minneapolis may have been killed in the fighting.
"It's been very fierce fighting and al-Shabaab has lost a lot of boys," Bihi said.
The courtroom scene
Six members of Ahmed's family sat behind him during Monday's hearing. At the end of the hearing, Ostgard, the defense attorney, asked Judge Nelson to allow his client to speak with and embrace his mother, whom he hadn't seen since his arrest Saturday.
Nelson asked the deputy U.S. marshal if that was allowed. The marshal said they could speak, but not embrace. For several minutes, the mother, wearing an orange shawl over her head and shoulders, spoke quietly with her son. They touched hands, and Ahmed was led away.
Outside the courtroom, Ahmed's cousin, Saed Darmar, said the family has no idea what Ahmed did wrong. Monday's indictment offered little clarity.
"It's a surprise to us, the same way it is to him," he said. "There are also questions."