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A Minneapolis man described in recent court testimony as a key terrorist recruiter was jailed Wednesday amid disclosure that another young Twin Cities man appears to have returned to Somalia to fight with Al-Shabab, a U.S. designated terrorist group.
A federal judge revoked the bond Wednesday for Omer Abdi Mohamed after federal authorities discovered that he was serving as a "parent liaison" at a private nonprofit school that offers after-school programs on the Qur'an, the Arabic language and general studies homework.
Mohamed had been identified by four witnesses during a related trial this month as a key figure helping recruit young Minnesota men for a holy war in their native Somalia in 2007.
Mohamed himself didn't testify in that case, which focused on a part-time janitor at a Minneapolis mosque who was convicted of five counts related to terrorism. Mohamed had faced similar charges -- and possibly life in prison -- but he cut a deal in July 2011 allowing him to plead guilty to one conspiracy count, which carries a maximum term of 15 years. He'd been free on bond since.
Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis ordered him taken into custody after hearing from a probation officer and an FBI agent about Mohamed's activities at the school. Davis, who presided over the trial of Mahamud Said Omar this month, said it was clear that Mohamed had been a leader in the initial 2007 exodus of more than 20 Minnesota immigrants who returned to Somali to fight with Al-Shabab.
The trial, Davis said, laid bare "the web that has been weaved in dealing with the secret indoctrination" by terrorists of young Minnesota recruits.
The pipeline apparently continues.
Uri Rosenwald, an FBI agent assigned to the Minnesota Joint Terrorism Task Force, revealed details about two men believed to have left Minneapolis for Somalia on July 18. Like most of the Al-Shabab recruits described in the trial this month, the pair left the Twin Cities on the same day and both later failed to use their return tickets.
One of the men, Mohamed Osman, 19, had reportedly attended the school, Essential Learning of Minnesota Institute (ELMI) at 31st and Lake Streets, for three months. He also had worshipped at the Abubakar As-Siddique Islamic Center until a couple of months before he left, when he switched to a mosque in the Karmel Mall in south Minneapolis, Rosenwald said.
Mohamed also had worshipped at Abubakar when the first wave of recruits began leaving in August 2007. He moved his residence in May to a place across the street from the Karmel Mall and worships at a mosque there, his probation officer said.
An "adult" associated with the school reported to the FBI that Omar A. Farah, 20, also had left to join Al-Shabab. Farah reportedly called the adult and told him he was in Marka, Somalia, "the area where people kill people," Rosenwald recounted. The adult then mentioned Al-Shabab, he said, and Farah replied, "I am with them."
Much of Rosenwald's testimony was based on FBI interviews with a half-dozen unidentified adults, including the parents of children who attended ELMI.
One parent reported that her teenage daughter had been an A student until she started attending classes at the school, when she grew distant and difficult, Rosenwald said. When she looked into it further, he said, she learned that her daughter had been restrained in a kind of exorcism ritual known as a "jinn." The parent said that Mohamed explained to her that her daughter wasn't bound, but was held down tightly as verses of the Qur'an were read over her. He told the woman her child was OK and that she would be returned.
Other parents related similar stories to the FBI, according to U.S. Probation Officer Krystal Taylor. She testified that Mohamed had reported to her in late July that he'd been volunteering as a teaching assistant. But some parents reported that he appeared to be a director or manager of the school.
They reportedly said that he had an office, that he accepted money for tuition, and that he attempted to raise money from parents to build a new facility.
The 2007 travelers tried to raise money for their trips by soliciting donations on the false premise that the money would be used to build a mosque.
Taylor said Mohamed continues to assert that he is unemployed, and that he primarily stays at home to care for his 1- and 3-year-old children. But he acknowledged that he had worked as a volunteer at the school for some time and hoped to get hired there. She said he also acknowledged forming a business-consulting firm that would require him to travel around Minnesota.
School widely attended
One of Mohamed's attorneys, Peter Wold, asked Rosenwald if there were other interviews with parents and adults that weren't disclosed Wednesday.
"None that we can discuss today," he responded.
More than 1,000 students attend ELMI's after-school programs and weekend language and religious classes, according to Wold. Rosenwald agreed that many parents report that the school has been a positive influence on their children.
Abdulcadir Haji, 55, of Burnsville, testified on Mohamed's behalf and raved about the school, where he sends his 6-, 8- and 10-year-olds. Haji said he is a Somali immigrant and U.S. military veteran who has worked in military intelligence and is still in the inactive reserves. Asked about Mohamed, he said, "As far as I know, he's the parent coordinator."
Haji said Mohamed knows many of the children and helps parents round them up when it's time to leave. He said he knows nothing about jinns at the school, which he described as a superstition, and said that he's never seen them in the United States.
Davis asked Haji if he knew the school's executive director, Awil Berbera.
"He was here in the courtroom, sir," Haji said.
Berbera was among the more than 50 people who observed Mohamed's detention hearing. But he left before it was over and refused to comment afterward.
Wold insisted that his client was never employed at the school. "He told them he was a volunteer, and he was a volunteer," he said loudly. "This jinn story is a great one," he added. "But it wasn't him!"
William Narus, a Department of Justice attorney, argued that Mohamed was a threat to the community. Testimony at the Omar trial this month indicated that Mohamed was a religious expert and the go-to person for travel to Somalia in 2007. He even helped one traveler create a fake itinerary showing he was going to Saudi Arabia on a pilgrimage to fool a young man's father so he could get his passport, Narus said.
"The defendant, in a leadership role, is not something new," he added.
Davis agreed. "It's telling that the executive director [of the school] did not get on the stand and tell the court under oath what the defendant's duties were," he said.
Davis said "the treacherous web that has been exposed under oath by a number of witnesses" in the Omar case lead him to conclude that no measures other than incarceration would protect the public. He ordered Mahamud jailed pending sentencing.
Afterward, Haji said he still supports the school. "I'm a veteran," he said. "I would not take my children where they have Al-Shabab."
Omar Jamal, a Somali community activist, said the hearing will cast a chill over the Somali community.
"This tells you that the government has taken their gloves off," he said.
Dan Browning • 612-673-4493