Terror charges against Minnesota man baffle family

Relatives and friends of a Minnesota man held in the Netherlands say he struggles with life and isn't capable of funding terrorists.

To federal agents, this week's arrest of Mohamud Said Omar in the Netherlands is the most significant development so far in one of the most sweeping counterterrorism investigations since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But to Omar's family and friends back in Minnesota, the accusations of bankrolling terrorist activities that led to his arrest are too far-fetched to believe.

They say Omar, 43, who once worked as a cashier at a 7-Eleven and later scrubbed toilets and collected money at a Minneapolis mosque, was too poor and powerless to get involved in paying for weapons and travel arrangements for as many as 20 local Somalis to return to their homeland to fight for the terrorist group Al-Shabaab.

They also believe Omar was set up.

"If you met with Mohamud, he's not a well-educated person," Omar's oldest brother, Mohamed Omar Osman, 51, of Rochester, said Friday. "He's not somebody who reads books. He's not somebody who goes after knowledge. He is just somebody who struggles with life.

"What I think is, he is either a scapegoat, or there are some Somali people who are the real guys who just gave this false information to the FBI. They give this false information to cover their own criminality."

FBI Special Agent E.K. Wilson, out of Minneapolis, declined Friday to comment or confirm that Omar is the man in custody.

Omar was arrested Sunday at the Dronten asylum seekers center northeast of Amsterdam on suspicion of being involved in the buying of weapons for Islamic extremists. He also is suspected of helping other Somalis, some from Minnesota, travel to Somalia to train and fight in 2007 and 2008.

Omar is being held in a Dutch jail. U.S. authorities are expected to push for his extradition, which could take more than a year if he fights it.

"What does Mohamud have to do with Al-Shabaab?" a baffled Osman said he asked a relative when learning of the arrest. "Is this Mohamud the one that I know or another Mohamud? ... Are you sure it's our Mohamud?"

Added Mohammed Rashid, a friend and former roommate of Omar's, "I know this man. He's not associated with what's going on. Not Mohamud. He's just a simple person."

A difficult life

Osman said Omar is a twice-divorced father of three young children who came to the United States from war-torn Somalia in 1993. He worked odd jobs as a cook, a cashier and a janitor. He wasn't political, religious or well-connected, his brother said.

"He never participated in any political activity," Osman said. "He never go to any meetings in religion or politics. He struggles his whole life. He had a difficult problem adjusting to life in the U.S."

Osman, 51, said he is the oldest of five siblings. He arrived in the United States in 1989, and settled in Virginia, where he worked as a language teacher in a school for diplomats. He said he sponsored the travel of his mother, three brothers and sister to the United States in 1993.

He said the family lived in Virginia for several years before moving to Georgia. They moved to Minnesota in 1998.

Osman said Omar married in the mid-1990s, and later had three children. He worked blue-collar, assembly-line jobs. In Virginia, he was a restaurant cook and convenience store cashier.

He struggled to keep a full-time job. After moving to Owatonna, Minn., his marriage broke up shortly after his third child was born, Osman said. Omar's wife moved with the children to England, he said.

Low-paying, blue-collar jobs

In 2002 or 2003, Omar moved to Minneapolis to live with another brother, Ahmed. Osman said Omar took a job as a janitor at the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, the largest Somali mosque in Minnesota and the place where many of the local men who returned to Somalia to train and fight were known to socialize and worship.

"Cleaning and working in the toilets and earning $800 a month," Osman said. Sometimes, with others, Omar helped collect money from worshippers during Friday prayers.

Abdullahi Said Omar, another brother, said he has heard that FBI agents showed his brother's photograph at Abubakar.

Osman insisted his brother was at the mosque only to work. "He doesn't know anything about the religion or the Qur'an or the history of religion," he said.

Osman said Omar traveled to Somalia in 2008 to marry for a second time. He was there for a month before returning to the United States. His wife stayed behind because he couldn't afford to bring her to Minnesota.

"After a while, she got angry with him, [and] she said, 'divorce me,'" Osman said. "And he divorced her."

Omar then went to California to get a license to drive trucks, but after getting it, couldn't find full-time work there or in Minnesota. Frustrated, he decided to travel to Saudia Arabia for the Hajj, a spiritual pilgrimage, Osman said.

While in Saudi Arabia, he decided to go to the Netherlands to seek asylum. "But they found out he has a residence here in the U.S., and they refuse it," Osman said.

Spirits and voices

Osman said his brother was never associated with the military. He also said Omar struggled with mental issues, complaining often about "hearing voices."

"One day he came here and said, 'Spirits come to me at night and make me a mad person,'" Osman said. "He says he hears voices, and he's afraid at night, and he cannot stay by himself alone. He had big problems."

Osman said he told his brother to seek medical help, "but he never did that."

Osman said he was angry when he learned his brother had gone to the Netherlands. "He doesn't have relatives over there," Osman said. "Here, if he stays with my brother, we know we can help him. But over there, we don't have any connection. We don't know the Netherlands."

Five local Somalis believed to have been recruited to train and fight in their homeland have died; another Minneapolis man who converted to Islam also is believed to have been killed. Over the past four months, four men have pleaded guilty to terror-related charges in the case. More indictments are expected.

But Rashid doubts his friend is part of it. "Someone who rides a bus and doesn't have a car, how he can finance a terrorist operation?" Rashid said.

Osman agreed.

"The FBI ... they make a drama to entertain the American people because they have big funds, millions and millions of dollars, and they have to justify where this money is going," he said. "They don't have the big guys, and they go arrest someone like Mohamud.

"Where is the person who convinced these people, who bought them a ticket and gave them cash so they can go to Somalia?" Osman said. "Where is this person who has funded these guys? Where is this person who does this operation secretly?"

richm@startribune.com • 612-673-4425 ashah@startribune.com • 612-673-4488

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