He was so small and thin that his black slacks bagged in the seat and bunched up on his Puma tennis shoes. The black security uniform shirt sagged on his frame like a throw blanket, leaving the U.S. flag sewed to the shoulder at half-mast on his biceps.

Magistrate Judge Susan Richard Nelson asked Salah Osman Ahmed if he understood the charges, that he was being indicted for aiding terrorists and plotting to "kill, kidnap, maim or injure" people in foreign countries.

Ahmed's voice was barely a whisper: "Yes," he said, stroking a faint beard.

In the second row of the federal courtroom in Minneapolis, Ahmed's mother rocked gently and dabbed at her eyes, one more tragic figure from the Somali diaspora in Minnesota.

Sunday: news that two more Somalis who had returned to their homeland to fight were probably dead, two more of about 20 Minnesotans lured back by false promises of religious study or heroism.

Monday: shocking charges that a quiet, 26-year-old former parking lot attendant and security guard who lives with his mother in Brooklyn Park may have been assisting terrorist activities.

"Do you own a home?" the judge asked.


"You drive your sister's car?"


"How much money do you have in the bank?"

"About $30," said Ahmed.

Amsterdam and Mogadishu must look awfully exotic to young man with $30 to his name. Whoever paid for his ticket knew that.

"What would you rather do, save virgins in Somalia, or work as a part-time security guard in some [hellhole]?" said Steven Simon, an expert on Middle East and terrorism for the Council on Foreign Relations.

Simon said that young men lured to jihad come from a variety of incomes and backgrounds. Some are bright and ambitious, others poor and disillusioned. But most share a desire to escape the humdrum. Most importantly, they share an underlying "mobilizing ideology," often instilled by a "seducer."

"It's generally somebody who has a degree of charisma and oftentimes experience with life on the front lines," Simon said. "Kids can dream of heroic deeds and all kinds of imagined feats, but it usually doesn't count unless somebody can exploit it."

That seducer often uses nationalism overlapped with religion, plus what military recruiters call "small group cohesion," to create peer pressure to join. The use of some sort of sexual imagery, such as stories of the enemy raping women, has also been used to "get people's blood boiling."

Then all they need is a plane ticket.

So, the young men talk to the recruiter and watch glamorous videos on the Internet that show courage and valor. The reality is much different, of course.

The reality is Burhan Hassan, an 18-year-old student from Roosevelt High, hunkered in some hovel in a war-torn city, racked with infection or malaria, missing his prescription glasses and wanting to come home. Reality is someone putting a bullet in his head, having decided he was no longer useful.

And reality is Ahmed, the skinny kid in the baggy uniform in courtroom 9E Monday, his voice so soft the judge called him to the podium to speak. When he did, he trembled slightly and then, through his lawyer, asked the court for a favor.

"Since he was arrested Saturday, his mother has not been able to sleep and is suffering from a lot of anxiety," said attorney James Ostgard. "I would ask the U.S. marshals if they would allow them to embrace briefly."

The marshal denied the request, so the judge allowed them to speak quietly in the corner of the room, separated by a railing. After a few minutes, the marshal said: "Let's go."

Instinctively, Ahmed's mother reached out and grabbed her son's hand for a moment before the marshal stepped between them. "No touching," he said.

Then Ahmed was whisked from the room.

It's too bad none of the young Somalis who may be listening to the radical teachings of some charlatan were there to see Ahmed. If they had been, they may have seen the truth: That Ahmed didn't look like a fearsome freedom fighter, but rather a sad, desperate, frightened kid who wanted nothing more than to hug his mother, and could not.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702