In 2007, seven Somali immigrants began meeting at a mosque in Minneapolis to discuss returning to their homeland to fight Ethiopian invaders. They kept their plans secret from family, friends and the mosque leadership. They met in cars, in two Lake Street restaurants and elsewhere until they began departing in small groups for a holy war.
Now, jurors in a Minneapolis federal court will hear firsthand from three of the men.
Federal prosecutors painted this picture Tuesday in opening arguments in the trial of Mahamud Said Omar, 46, charged with helping to send men and money into a pipeline to Al-Shabab, a U.S.-designated terrorist group.
The prosecutors revealed details not publicly discussed in the years-long investigation into the recruitment of more than 20 Somali men from Minnesota.
Defense attorneys countered that the evidence will show that Omar is not guilty and has never organized anything in his life.
The 10 women and six men who make up the jury panel must weigh whether Omar was a dupe or a diplomat for Al-Shabab, Arabic for "The Youth."
Omar faces five charges related to helping a terrorist organization and conspiring to kill and maim people overseas.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Kovats Jr. showed jurors a chart of 18 young men who traveled to Somalia in 2007 and 2008 to fight for Al-Shabab. He said they had been born in Somalia and were brought to the United States by their families to escape the civil war that has wracked their homeland since 1991.
"But the defendant turned them around, directed them into this pipeline, back to the violence," Kovats said.
Witnesses for the prosecution
Kovats said three of the "travelers" who went to fight in Somalia would testify against Omar as part of plea agreements that they hope will result in reduced sentences for their own crimes.
Jurors were shown the crest of Al-Shabab: two AK-47 assault rifles crossed over a Qur'an imposed on a silhouette of the Horn of Africa.
In 2006, the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia asked longtime territorial rival Ethiopia for help to stabilize the country, Kovats said. When Ethiopian troops entered the country, Somalis around the world were outraged.
Seven Somali immigrants began meeting at the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis and elsewhere to discuss returning to Somalia to fight the Ethiopian troops, Kovats said. Three men -- Kamal Said Hassan, Salah Osman Ahmed and Abdifatah Yusuf Isse -- will testify about their 2007 trips to Somalia, he said. They will describe a "safehouse" in Somalia where they trained in hand-to-hand combat and learned how to handle weapons.
They will say that Omar stayed at the house for about 10 days in early 2008, contributed to household expenses, and provided cash for rifles, Kovats said. He said Omar left to get married and returned to the United States to help more recruits.
Hassan, one of four Minneapolis men who made it through an Al-Shabab training camp, will testify about the speaking role he had in a propaganda video that was made there. He also will talk about an ambush of Ethiopian fighters in July 2008 that he participated in with three other Minnesotans, including one who narrated a propaganda video about it, Kovats said.
After Omar returned to Minneapolis, Shirwa Ahmed, a U.S. citizen from Minneapolis, blew himself up in one of five coordinated suicide attacks in Somalia, Kovats said. Despite knowing that, he said, Omar helped arrange travel for six more recruits.
In November 2008 Omar left for a religious pilgrimage to Saudia Arabia. During his return flight, he stopped in the Netherlands and asked for asylum.
Defense: 'A peaceful man'
Jurors heard a completely different story from Andrew Birrell, one of Omar's attorneys. Birrell noted that the government isn't alleging that Omar ever threatened the United States.
"Mr. Omar is not even a member of this group," he said, referring to Al-Shabab.
Omar was a frail and sickly child. His father, an educator, died in an accident when Omar was 6. He struggled to complete high school and immigrated to America in 1997. He has held jobs as a cook's assistant, a factory laborer, a janitor at the Abubakar mosque and an assistant semi-truck driver, Birrell said.
After 20 years in the United States, he barely speaks English, Birrell said.
He said Omar's only trip back to Somalia, in 2008, was to get married. He did not stay in any safehouse, Birrell said, suggesting that the witnesses against him would say anything for a lighter sentence.
Omar applied for asylum in the Netherlands because he learned that the imam at his mosque in Minneapolis had been placed on the no-fly list, and that worshippers there were suspected of terrorist activities, Birrell said.
Authorities interrogated Omar over two days. When they returned for a third day, Birrell said, he complained he was ill and an FBI agent suggested some time in jail might change his mind.
"The plan worked," Birrell said.
Omar was held in near total isolation for 18 months. When interrogators returned in 2010, Omar maintained for three days that he'd done nothing wrong, but eventually incriminated himself, Birrell said.
"He was worried that the United States government would try to lock him up for the rest of his life, or have him executed," he said. "Mr. Omar has been looking forward to his day in court, one of the many things this country has given him for which he is grateful."
Several of Omar's family and friends sat quietly in the back of the courtroom.
Abdirizak Bihi, whose teenage nephew was one of the Al-Shabab recruits and is believed to have been killed in Somalia, reacted to the openings with a mix of hope and disgust.
"That the person being charged is someone we know personally, it really makes things worse," Bihi said. "Someone who could look you in the eyes while at the same time working to steal your kids. I hope he cooperates with the government and tells who he is working for."
Staff writer Allie Shah contributed to this report. Dan Browning 612-673-4493