Terrorism charges filed Monday in Minneapolis against eight men painted the most complete picture yet of how approximately 20 local men were indoctrinated, recruited and trained to fight in Somalia with a terrorist organization.
The eight, most of whom have fled the country, were also charged with providing financial support and fighting for Al-Shabaab, which the U.S. government identifies as a terrorist group with ties to Al-Qaida.
The development, announced at the office of the U.S. attorney for Minnesota, brings to 14 the total number of local men charged or indicted in the case, considered to be one of the most far-reaching counterterrorism probes since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Four of the 14 already have pleaded guilty and await sentencing. Five other Somali men have been killed, along with a Muslim convert from Minneapolis.
Ralph Boelter, special agent in charge of the FBI's Minneapolis office, said Monday that investigators all along have been concerned about the prospects of American citizens with U.S. passports receiving terrorist training and returning to this country, possibly to carry out an attack on American soil.
He added, however, that the investigation here shows "no evidence" that such a plot exists.
Boelter said officials decided to announce the additional indictments Monday because they had "reached a tipping point" in the case and had made substantial progress in the investigation.
Boelter stopped short of saying that investigators had identified a "mastermind." Instead, he said, "I believe we have reached momentum and have reached the point where we will have full resolution of this case."
A local connection
The picture painted in court records released Monday was of young Somali men seduced by the cause of defending their war-torn homeland against Ethiopian troops that had helped oust an Islamic government.
One of the key figures in romanticizing the fight was Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax, known to local Somalis by his former name "Ahmed Mardaadi" or his nickname "Adacki." Faarax was one the eight men indicted Monday and is believed to have fled the country.
According to court documents:
Faarax and others met at a Minneapolis mosque to phone co-conspirators in Somalia in the fall of 2007 and discuss the need for Minnesota-based fighters to go to Somalia.
The records allege that later that fall, Faarax attended a meeting with co-conspirators at a Minneapolis residence, where he encouraged others to join the fight.
He told them that he "experienced true brotherhood" while fighting in Somalia and that travel for jihad was the best thing that they could do.
Faarax also detailed his own combat on the Somali-Kenya border, where he was wounded. He told the group that "jihad would be fun" and not to be afraid. He said they would "get to shoot guns."
According to court records, Faarax was helped in the recruiting by Abdiweli Yassin Isse, who also helped raise money for travel. Isse was among those indicted Monday.
The documents allege that Isse "misled community members into thinking they were contributing money to send young men to Saudi Arabia to study the Qur'an."
Six men bought the recruiters' pitch. Court records say that after arriving in Somalia in late 2007, the men allegedly stayed in safe houses and attended terrorist training camps that included "dozens of other young ethnic Somalis" from Somalia, other parts of Africa, Europe and the United States.
The trainees were reportedly trained by Somali, Arab and Western instructors "in the use of small arms, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and military-style tactics," records say. They also were indoctrinated against Ethiopian, American, Israeli and Western beliefs.
One of the six men who left was Shirwa Ahmed, 26, a former college student from Minneapolis who was killed in October 2008 in a suicide blast in northern Somalia.
Ahmed was identified as a suicide bomber after investigators matched a fingerprint from "a single finger" recovered from a truck bomb site. Ahmed is believed to be the first U.S. citizen to carry out a suicide bombing.
Ahmed's death, and the disappearances of another eight to 10 young Somalis in the fall of 2008, immediately heightened fears in the U.S. intelligence community that other Somali men from the United States who left to train and fight with a terrorist group might return to America as trained killers who might carry out an attack here.
Similar fears surfaced in England, Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia.
In the grasp
In the months after Ahmed's death, it was well known in the local Somali community that Faarax, a Roosevelt High School graduate and former soccer player, had been to Somalia to fight, was injured and had returned.
When confronted at a south Minneapolis coffee shop by a reporter in July, Faarax denied his identity or any role in the case.
Authorities questioned Faarax on three occasions about his involvement. Each time, he denied going to Somalia and having knowledge of a conspiracy.
Early last month, Faarax was one of several men in a car that was stopped by the Nevada Highway Patrol. All said they were going to San Diego to attend a wedding.
Two days later, Faarax and Isse were identified by a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officer as two of three men dropped by a taxi at the Mexican border. Faarax and Isse told the officer that they would be flying from the Tijuana airport to the Mexico City airport and displayed airline tickets.
A friend of Faarax's said last week that Faarax had posted on Facebook that he had made it out of the country and was "home."
Isse also is believed to be out of the country, officials said Monday.
Six other local men indicted Monday also are believed to have fled the United States. They are Ahmed Ali Omar, Khalid Mohamud Abshir, Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan, Mustafa Ali Salat and Zakaria Maruf, who relatives say was killed in fighting in Mogadishu in July.
The eighth man indicted is Mahamud Said Omar, 43, who was arrested two weeks ago in the Netherlands on suspicion of lending financial support to terrorists and helping potential fighters travel to Somalia.
Just tip of the iceberg?
As news circulated Monday throughout the local Somali community, the largest in the United States, leaders expressed both relief and frustration.
"We knew all along there must be people calling back to Somalia," said Hussein Samatar, director of the African Development Center in Minneapolis and a relative of one of the young men killed. "We guessed it, that there must have been someone collaborating and assembling resources to mislead these young men to leave the Twin Cities. We were waiting for authorities to unravel [the case] and say, 'So and so did this at this time and at this place.'"
Less satisfied was Abdirizak Bihi, uncle of Burhan Hassan, 18, who was killed in June, just one day before his class graduated from Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis.
"This isn't close anywhere to the big fish who were responsible for masterminding the recruitment of our kids," he said.
"This is nothing, actually. What does this do?" said Nimco Ahmed, a former high school classmate of both Faarax and Shirwa Ahmed.
B. Todd Jones, U.S. attorney for Minnesota, said the investigation is not yet complete. But he hopes the message to those who would leave this country to fight in another is clear.
"The sad reality is that the vibrant Somali community here in Minneapolis has lost many of its sons to fighting in Somalia," Jones said. "These young men have been recruited to fight in a foreign war by individuals and groups using violence against government troops and civilians. Those tempted to fight on behalf of or provide support to any designated terrorist group should know they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."