To Omer Abdi Mohamed, raising money to send other young men to Somalia, to train and arm them with assault rifles to fight there, had nothing to do with terrorism.

In late 2007, he said, it was about defending his homeland against Ethiopians.

One problem: It was still illegal, federal officials say.

On Monday, Mohamed agreed, pleading guilty in federal court in Minneapolis to a single count of conspiracy to "murder, kidnap or maim" Ethiopian and Somali troops. His plea came of the eve of his trial. He would have been the first of 21 local people of Somali descent to go to trial in connection with one of the largest U.S. counterterrorism investigations since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Instead, the 26-year-old became the sixth person to plead guilty in a case that has shocked, saddened and divided the local Somali community for the past four years. He pleaded guilty, his attorney said, because zero to 15 years in prison is a lot more palatable to a young father than the risk of 50-plus years behind bars if convicted by a jury. Mohamed has a 2-year-old son and another baby boy due in six weeks.

'Sleepless weekend'

"It was a very sleepless weekend," said attorney Peter Wold. "Omer and his family agreed to do this."

The case officials dubbed "Operation Rhino" began as Mohamed worked with several other men in what is considered the first wave of a Somali exodus to their homeland to fight for Al-Shabab, a terrorist group with ties to Al-Qaida. At the time, from September 2007 through December 2007, Wold said the motivation was to expel hated Ethiopians from Somalia. Ethiopian troops occupied Somalia after the ouster of its Islamic government in early 2007.

Mohamed and others met at mosques and restaurants, raising money and arranging travel for several young Somalis to go and fight.

One of the men in that first wave -- Shirwa Ahmed -- became the first U.S. citizen to die as a suicide bomber overseas in October 2008.

Ahmed's death sparked a massive inquiry into who was recruiting, funding, training and arming young recruits to leave, fight and die for Al-Shabab. Since October 2008, investigators have identified 21 "travelers" and several more "middlemen" who they contend raised money and arranged the recruits' travel to Africa. Omer Mohamed was one such middleman.

Several of the organizers, however, are believed to be in Somalia.

In the years since the investigation began, at least nine men from Minnesota are believed to have been killed while fighting in Somalia. In June, a second Minnesota Somali was killed in an attempted suicide bombing in Mogadishu.

In the past few years, dozens of Somali-born residents from Europe, Canada, Australia and the United States allegedly have lent their support to Al-Shabab as fighters or financiers.

No longer fighting

At first, Mohamed contested the charges, Wold said, arguing that he was defending his homeland and not helping terrorists. But on Monday, he admitted to U.S. Chief Judge Michael Davis that what he did was illegal.

"I understand that now," he told the judge, who will sentence Mohamed later.

On Monday, Wold said that Mohamed is opposed to Al-Shabab and supports the current Somali government.

U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones said Mohamed and others were involved in "a dangerous and misguided effort to support a terrorist organization."

Added Jones: "In the process, they tore apart many Somali-American families. Parents were left to fret over the disappearance of their young sons, who often left home without a word."

James Walsh • 612-673-7428