The long-awaited appearance of an accused terrorist in a Minnesota courtroom Friday could be an important step in understanding how and why 20 young Somalis left Minneapolis to fight in Somalia.
Mahamud Said Omar, 45, a former Minneapolis resident, was arrested in the Netherlands last year and recently lost his battle to avoid extradition.
He will make an initial appearance Friday in U.S. District Court in St. Paul on charges he provided material support to terrorists and conspiracy to kill people outside the United States.
Court documents indicate he was involved in recruiting about 20 young men to fight in Somalia in 2007 and 2008. The charges allege he later met some of them in a safe house in Mogadishu, where he provided them with cash to buy AK-47 assault weapons.
"The process to extradite him to the United States and the overall investigation has been long and tedious," E.K. Wilson, supervisory special agent in charge of the FBI's investigation, said Wednesday night. He said the extradition was "a significant point in this particular investigation and our overall investigation into missing young Somali-American men from the Twin Cities."
Authorities believe Minneapolis has been a recruiting ground for young Somalis to join Al-Shabab, a paramilitary organization in Somalia that the feds allege has links to Al-Qaida. The Minneapolis recruitment effort has been highlighted in congressional hearings on issues of home-grown terrorism.
Local members of the Somali-American community said they are anxious to see what the government investigation has uncovered.
"This could be huge," said Hussein Samatar, a Minneapolis school board member and executive director of the African Development Center. "There were a lot of young people who had no money and ended up Somalia. How did it happen? Maybe this would be the key piece we are waiting for, or maybe not."
Samatar is a distant relation of a Minneapolis youth who went back to Somalia and was killed there, possibly by Al-Shabab, according to his family here.
"The community is very anxious to move beyond this story," said Dahir Jibreel, head of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center. "The mystery of the disappearance of youngsters from Minnesota and from elsewhere needs to be discovered bit by bit. I'm not sure if this guy [Omar] knows how these youth disappeared. We'll see what will happen in the court."
Two from here have died
Two Somalis from Minneapolis have died in suicide military missions in Somalia, according to the FBI, although none has been accused of plotting terrorism against targets in the United States.
Court records do not portray Omar as a kingpin of a conspiracy, but more of a facilitator and recruiter.
Three Somalis arrested earlier provided details to the FBI about Omar's role, according to federal documents. So far, 14 Somalis have been charged.
In November 2008, Omar moved to the Netherlands. He was indicted on five counts by a U.S. grand jury in November 2009 and was arrested at a Dutch asylum seekers' center a year later at Washington's request and jailed in a high-security Dutch prison during his extradition fight. In February, the Dutch supreme court rejected Omar's final appeal to prevent extradition, but his attorney mounted further challenges.
Trying to get Omar to talk
Authorities likely will attempt to persuade Omar to become a cooperating witness and lead them to other suspects.
U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones said earlier this year: "We've been waiting and waiting and we'll be waiting some more. When he finally gets here, we will be ready for him."
On Wednesday, Jeanne Cooney, a spokeswoman for Jones, would make no comment, other than to confirm that Omar will make his first federal court appearance at 1 p.m. Friday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeanne Graham in St. Paul.
Born in Somalia in 1966, Omar has been a lawful permanent resident of the United States since 1994, according to extradition records.
When Omar was arrested in Holland in 2009, federal agents called it the most significant development so far in their investigation of local Somali links to terrorists. But family members and friends rejected the accusations that he was bankrolling terrorist activities, saying it was too far-fetched to be believed.
Brother: Unlikely terrorist
"If you met with Mahamud, he's not a well-educated person," Omar's oldest brother, Mohamed Omar Osman, 51, of Rochester, said at the time. "He's not somebody who reads books. He's not somebody who goes after knowledge. He is just somebody who struggles with life."
He described his brother as a twice-divorced father of three who came to the United States from war-torn Somalia in 1993, working odd jobs as a cook, cashier and janitor. After living in Virginia and Georgia with his family, he moved to Owatonna, Minn., in 1998, and came to Minneapolis in 2002 or 2003 where he worked as a janitor at a Somali mosque.
According to an affidavit by FBI special agent Kiann Vandenover, Omar gave money to another man to travel to Somalia to fight against Ethiopians who were occupying Somalia.
After Omar returned to Minneapolis, a witness said Omar was present when two Somali men who wanted to travel to Somalia to fight the Ethiopians were driven to the airport.
In November 2008, Omar left the United States and didn't return. He showed up at the Dutch asylum center northeast of Amsterdam in December 2008 and asked the Dutch government for asylum. He was indicted by a U.S. grand jury on August 20, 2009.