Lawyers debate who is a terrorist as sentences near in Minnesota Somali trials

  • Updated: May 12, 2013 - 11:50 PM

Nine defendants who worked to aid homeland deny they are terrorists, claiming they were unaware of Al-Shabab’s atrocities.


The fate of nine Somali Americans from Minnesota who cast their lot with the Somali insurgency in a chaotic civil war will be decided this week in three days of hearings before U.S. District Judge Michael Davis.

Branding the nine defendants recruiters, supporters and participants in a terrorist organization in Somalia called Al-Shabab, the U.S. attorney’s office is recommending sentences ranging from five to 50 years, asserting in some of the cases that terrorists are less likely to be rehabilitated than your average criminal.

Prosecutors say that Al-Shabab has the backing of Al-Qaida and the defendants knew what they were getting into.

The Somalis’ attorneys say their clients are not terrorists, but people who got caught up in a patriotic effort to defend their homeland against an invasion by Ethiopian troops. They say they did not realize until too late that Al-Shabab’s militarism devolved into atrocities.

In hundreds of pages of legal briefs filed in the past month, the arguments for lenient vs. harsh sentences are laid out by defense lawyers and prosecutors, with America’s war on terrorism as a backdrop.

Al-Shabab is a “violent Islamist militia,” prosecutors wrote in one filing last month, engaged in “guerrilla warfare, suicide bombings, assassinations, mortars and various suicide tactics to intimidate the Somali population.” They say the defendants backed a terrorist group that plotted to kill Ethiopian troops invited into Somalia.

Defense lawyers fire back that Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) that opposed Al-Shabab lacked legitimacy itself. They cite reports that TFG battled its own people, raping and murdering and encouraging the invasion of Ethiopian troops, with the backing of the United States, to overthrow the previous Islamic regime.

Under the government’s thesis, one defense attorney argued, American revolutionaries who rose up against Britain in 1776 would face enhanced sentences for terrorist acts.

A driving force behind the prosecutions is a fear that violence in Somalia could spill back into this country.

“A stark example of the harm that this type of investigation is seeking to prevent is the recent attacks in Boston where two individuals were not identified as suspects … until after they had taken action against U.S. citizens,” said W. Anders Folk, a former prosecutor in the Somali cases who is now in private practice.

But defense attorneys say their clients never considered a terrorist act here, nor are they charged with such a crime. They concede their clients broke federal laws, but insist they are not radicals.

Defendants’ actions

Omer Abdi Mohamed helped men travel to Somalia “to help fellow Somali citizens return to their homeland and defend fellow citizens from assault,” writes his attorney, Peter Wold. “While that does not justify his actions, it also does not make him a terrorist.”

Prosecutors counter that Mohamed played a role in aiding terrorism, claiming that terrorists and terrorist organizations rely upon support from individuals for their success in carrying out specific attacks as well as their continued existence.

Calling it a “Minnesota pipeline,” prosecutors point to more than 20 young men who went from Minneapolis to Somalia to join Al-Shabab. On Oct. 29, Shirwa Ahmed of Minneapolis became the first American to die in a suicide attack in Somalia.

Defendant Amina Farah Ali faces up to 30 years. She was convicted of aiding Al-Shabab by collecting money she claimed was for the needy. Prosecutors said she hailed an Al-Shabab attempt to kill the new Somali president. Judge Davis cited her for contempt in her 2011 trial for refusing to stand when he entered the courtroom.

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  • Timeline of events in Somali terror cases

    Sunday May 12, 2013

    June 2006: Islamic Courts Union (ICU) of which Al-Shabab is an entity, takes control of Mogadishu, SomaliaDecember 2006: Ethiopia invades...

  • To be sentenced

    on Monday

    Kamal Said Hassan


    Pleaded guilty in 2009 to two counts of providing material support to a conspiracy to kill overseas, and one count of making false statements to the FBI.

    Mahamud Said Omar


    Convicted in 2012 of three counts of providing material support to terrorists, one count of conspiracy to provide material support of a foreign terrorist organization and one count of conspiring to kill, kidnap, maim and injure persons outside the United States.

    To be sentenced

    on Tuesday

    Abdifath Yusuf Isse


    Pleaded guilty in 2009 to providing material support for a conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim or injure persons in another country.

    Salah Osman Ahmed

    Brooklyn Park

    Pleaded guilty in 2009 to one count of providing material support and resources to be used to carry out a conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim or injure people in a foreign country.

    Omer Abdi Mohamed


    Pleaded guilty in 2011 to providing material support to terrorists.

    Ahmed Hussein Mahamud

    Eden Prairie

    Pleaded guilty in 2012 to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

    To be sentenced

    on Thursday

    Abdarus Abudulle Ali

    Columbia Heights

    Pleaded guilty in 2009 to one count of perjury.

    Amina Farah Ali


    Convicted in 2011 of 13 counts of conspiracy and providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

    Hawo Mohamed Hassan


    Convicted in 2011 of three counts of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization and making two false statements to the FBI.


    June 2006: Islamic Courts Union (ICU) of which Al-Shabab is entity, takes control of Mogadishu, Somalia

    December 2006: Ethiopia invades Somalia, invited by the Somali Transitional Federal Government, prosecutors say. Others say invasion had U.S. backing to overthrow ICU.

    More than 1,000 Somalis rally in Minneapolis to call for immediate Ethiopian withdrawal.

    Mid 2007: ICU dismantled, Al-Shabab influence grows.

    December 2007: The first of about 20 young men leave Minneapolis and travel to Somalia to train and fight with Al-Shabab.

    February 2008: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice designates Al-Shabab a terrorist organization.

    October 2008: Shirwa Ahmed, 26, of Minneapolis, dies in a car-bombing in Somalia. He is believed to be the first American suicide bomber.

    June-July 2009: Three Minneapolis men killed in Mogadishu.

    July 2009: Two Somali men with local ties are the first to be indicted on a charge of aiding terrorism.

    September 2009: A fifth Somali man from Minneapolis and a Muslim convert from Minneapolis are killed in Mogadishu.

    June 20, 2011: Number of men charged in Minnesota with supporting terrorism reaches 20.

    Oct. 20, 2011: Two Rochester women are convicted of conspiring to provide support to a foreign terrorist group but weren’t connected to the recruitment of fighters.

    Oct. 18, 2012: One-time mosque janitor Mahamud Said Omar found guilty of five terror-related charges.

    May. 13-16, 2013: U.S. Chief Judge Michael Davis to sentence nine people.

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