Somali terror trial focuses on tapes

The FBI, disputing argument that Omar is incompetent, says he told translator "They got me" after hearing tapes of his calls.

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Omar Jamal, center, a spokesman for the family of defendant Mahamud Said Omar, spoke to the press alongside Omar’s brothers Hussein Sharif, left, and Abdulahi Sharif on Wednesday.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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After seven days of trial focusing largely on the activities of Somali immigrants who left Minnesota to fight with a terrorist group in their homeland, federal prosecutors this week set their sights squarely on a man accused of helping recruit them.

Mahamud Said Omar has been portrayed by family members as a simple-minded janitor at a Minneapolis mosque, where he encountered a number of younger men who set off to fight what they believed were Ethiopian troops in Somalia in 2007 and 2008. They disputed the notion that Omar could possibly have helped support the effort by funneling money to the men and helping them make travel arrangements.

But jurors got a different take Monday when FBI special agent Kiann Vandenover took the stand. She described a series of interviews with Omar after he'd been arrested in the Netherlands, where he had sought asylum. She said that after federal agents played wire intercepts of Omar's telephone conversations, he told the translators that he now knew what kind of evidence the FBI had.

"He said, 'They got me,'" Vandenover testified.

Prosecutors are seeking to shatter any notion that Omar is a stooge. They filed motions this week to admit statements he made to Dutch immigration officials and telephone conversations he had with his brothers while he was jailed in Anoka County awaiting trial.

A transcript of his statements shows that Omar lied to Dutch immigration officials when he sought asylum after a trip to Somalia. He lied about when he got married and how long he lived in Somalia and did not tell officials that he had previously lived in the United States.

Transcripts of jail phone calls reveal that Omar's brothers coached him on what to tell investigators. The statements seem at odds with the defense's portrayal of Omar as clueless.

Omar, 46, of Minneapolis, faces five charges related to helping a terrorist organization and conspiring to kill and maim people overseas. He is accused of giving money and encouragement to some of the 20 or more Minnesota Somali men who left to fight in Somalia with Al-Shabab, which is designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. government. To date, 18 people have been charged in connection with an ongoing FBI investigation that is one of the most extensive counter-terrorist operations since the Sept. 11 attacks. Omar is the first to go on trial.

Omar Jamal, a spokesman for Omar's family, said the jail phone call transcript between the defendant and his brothers was a bit troublesome but Omar's statements to Dutch officials are of less concern. "What he said in the Netherlands, the family's position is he'd been locked up in a cell. He was tremendously afraid. He felt sick. He was really fearful and afraid and he would do almost anything or say almost anything to get himself off the hook."

Jamal also said the trial so far has reinforced the notion that Omar was not part of a conspiracy to send fighters overseas, because those involved have said they did not see Omar at the planning meetings or at the fundraising outings.

Between Dec. 26, 2008, and June 29, 2009, Omar gave three statements to Dutch authorities. In his first interview with Dutch officials, Omar said he was married in 2000 in Somalia. He said that his brothers and sisters were dead. He also told officials that he ran a store from 1988 to January 2008 in Baardheere, Somalia, and later went to Mogadishu, where he worked until October 2008.

Prosecutors, in the motion they filed on Sunday, indicated that their cross examination may include questions about an "attempt to fabricate evidence." Prosecutors say Omar's brother Abdulahi Omar coached him to "falsely testify."

In a call last May, Abdulahi Omar told his brother to say he went to Somalia to visit uncle "Sharif Hassan" in Marka, and that he was taken at gunpoint to an Al-Shabab safehouse in Marka.

"That is how it is," the defendant responded.

"Yes, that you were even suspected to work for the FBI," Abdulahi Omar continues. "That is it," his brother responds.

In another phone conversation recorded by investigators last June, another brother, Mohamed Omar Osman, told Omar to say that he traveled to Somalia to visit his uncle "Said Bakar" who was sick and that Omar went directly from Mogadishu to Baardheere.

Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis has not yet ruled on the prosecutors' motions.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty said the government would likely rest its case Tuesday.

dbrowning@startribune.com • 612-673-4493 ashah@startribune.com • 612-673-4488

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