Abdifatah Yusuf Isse put a face on terrorism Thursday.
Testifying in federal court, he described how he and other young men met at a Minneapolis mosque in 2007 and hatched a plan to return to their native Somalia and join a holy war.
The 28-year-old, the first of the men to publicly discuss their journey, strode confidently into court dressed in a dark blazer, off-white shirt and gold tie. He responded calmly to questions from Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty.
His path to the witness stand began in 2007 when he came to Minnesota, hoping to get married. Instead he became embroiled in a secret pipeline of Minnesota men planning to take up arms for Al-Shabab, a U.S.-designated terrorist group.
"I have decided to go to Somalia and wage jihad against Ethiopians," Isse said he told his girlfriend before leaving.
Isse said the men took great pains to keep their plans secret. Docherty asked why.
"Actually, it wasn't supported by the community," he said. "We were afraid we might get caught by the government or get in trouble with the mosque officials, or the parents."
Defense attorneys will get a chance to question Isse on Friday and are expected to contend that he is only talking now because he has cut a deal and hopes to get a reduced sentence by cooperating with the government in the trial of their client, Mahamud Said Omar, 46, of Minneapolis. Omar faces five charges related to helping a terrorist organization and conspiring to kill and maim people overseas.
Isse, who has pleaded guilty to one count of providing material assistance to a foreign terrorism organization, is two courses shy of a bachelor's degree in economics. He said he didn't have a job when he moved to Robbinsdale to be closer to his girlfriend. He said he spent considerable time at Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis, where his girlfriend had attended.
Including himself, he identified photographs of 12 of the 18 people charged in connection with the disappearance of 20 Somali men from Minnesota and their reappearance as insurgents in Somalia.
The FBI investigation that traced their movements and the funding that made the travel possible is one of the most extensive counterterrorism investigations in the U.S. since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Isse said he met Omar, who was a janitor at the mosque, and the others there in October 2007. Most, if not all of them, spent the last 10 days of Ramadan, the most sacred month for Muslims, sleeping at the mosque, he explained.
"It is important because your sins will be forgiven, basically, if you're there worshipping God," Isse said.
A man who wasn't among those charged brought up the idea of going to Somalia to fight Ethiopian troops, a historic enemy, after they'd been invited into the country by the Transitional Federal Government to help restore order. Somalia had been in a state of civil war since 1991.
He said he traveled with co-defendant Ahmed Ali Omar from Minneapolis to Dubai, where they were joined by two other Minnesotans. They all traveled to Djibouti and then on to Somalia's capital of Mogadishu, and on to the town of Marka, where they stayed nearly three months in a "safehouse" run by a woman known as "Umma Shabab," or "Mother of Shabab."
That's when Isse said he realized he was joining Al-Shabab, a group that has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
"In Minnesota I knew the name, but at this point, I'm learning more at every step," Isse said.
He said the recruits were told to give themselves nicknames for security reasons, and to turn in travel documents such as passports and immigration papers. The men were taught to disassemble AK-47 assault rifles and belt-fed machine guns and learned about rocket-propelled grenade launchers, he said.
Isse said Omar also stayed at the house for more than a week but he didn't know if he handled any weaponry. Isse eventually headed south to help build an Al-Shabab training camp. He said he left after a week to accompany his friend Salah Osman Ahmed to get treatment for a rash. Isse eventually made his way back to the U.S.
He said Shirwa Mohamud Ahmed, another Minnesotan, also tried to leave but was denied his travel documents and was told to return to training. He died in a suicide bombing.
Two other Minnesota men who went to Somalia in 2007 to fight for Al-Shabab have also pleaded guilty to terror-related charges and are expected to testify in Omar's trial. Salah Osman Ahmed is expected to be on the stand Friday.
Defense attorneys have maintained Omar is not guilty and say he was not even a member of Al-Shabab, much less a planner for a covert pipeline of money and men to Somalia.
Isse testified that Omar, whom he knew as "Sharif," gave his traveling partner "pocket money" before they left for Somalia. "Sharif, he handed like $500 to Ahmed. It was like $100 bills," Isse said. "He basically said, 'Good luck on the trip and if you need anything, just call me.'"
Prosecutors played excerpts of wiretap recordings between Isse and Omar that took place in early November 2008, as a handful of other Minnesota men were departing for Somalia. By that point, Isse was already back in Seattle.
According to a transcript of the conversation, Omar says he's planning on leaving Minneapolis as soon as possible. He says an Abubakar teacher named "Sadiiq" had just approached him at the mosque and asked how long he was going to "stay with us."
Omar says Sadiiq told him, "The city [is] in [an] uproar -- that is what we will see if you stay."
If he remains in the city when all the youth leave, Omar says, "they are coming flashing."
Isse said he had no idea what that meant, but prosecutors have said it means that police are closing in.
Omar left for a religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 22, 2008. On his return, he applied for political asylum in the Netherlands, where he was later arrested at U.S. request.
Mohamud Guled, executive director of Abubakar, said he wasn't familiar with a teacher named Sadiiq and didn't respond to related questions.
Dan Browning 612-673-4493 Allie Shah 612-673-4488