A 43-year-old Somali man from Minneapolis was arrested this week in the Netherlands for allegedly financing the recruitment of up to 20 young Somali men from Minnesota to train and fight with terrorists in their homeland.
The arrest appears to be the most significant development yet in one of the most far-reaching counterterrorism investigations since 9/11.
The identity of the man, who was arrested Sunday at an asylum-seeker's center 45 miles northeast of Amsterdam, was not released. But Special Agent E.K. Wilson of the Minneapolis FBI office confirmed Tuesday that the man was arrested in connection with the ongoing counterterrorism investigation that began here when young men began disappearing in 2007.
"We are aware of this individual and of this arrest. And it is tied to our ongoing Minneapolis investigation," Wilson said. "We are and have been working closely with Dutch authorities through our legal attaché office in Brussels and coordinating with the Department of Justice Office of International Affairs."
Dutch prosecutors said in a statement that the man lived in Minneapolis before leaving the United States in November 2008 and arrived in the Netherlands about one month later.
The statement said American authorities asked for the man's arrest and are seeking to have him extradited. Wilson said he could not confirm or deny that.
According to the Dutch statement, U.S. prosecutors suspect the man of bankrolling the purchase of weapons for Islamic extremists and helping other Somalis travel to Somalia in 2007 and 2008.
Jeanne Cooney, director of community relations for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minneapolis, which has been handling the case here, said she could not comment.
An ongoing investigation
Minneapolis has been the epicenter of the case for nearly two years, ever since the first of up to 20 young Somali men from Minnesota began leaving to return to their homeland. In most cases, the men did not tell family or friends of their plans.
The men are believed to have been recruited by Al-Shabab to train and fight. Al-Shabab has been designated by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization with ties to Al-Qaeda.
Five of the Minnesotans have died, including Shirwa Ahmed, a Minneapolis man who is believed to be the first U.S. citizen to act as a suicide bomber when he died at the center of an explosion in northern Somalia in October 2008.
A sixth man, a Muslim convert from Minneapolis, is also thought to have been killed in the fighting.
In addition, four other Somali-American men have pleaded guilty in federal court in Minneapolis to charges related to this case. The most recent to plead guilty was 25-year-old Adarus Abdullah Ali, who admitted in court last week to lying to a grand jury about knowing men who went to Somalia to fight.
The three other men who pleaded guilty earlier this year admitted to traveling to Somalia and attending an Al-Shabab training camp there. Al-Shabab, which means "the youth" in Somali, has been fighting an ongoing civil war to establish an Islamic state.
At the heart of the federal investigation has been the question of who recruited the men and financed their return to their homeland to fight.
Wilson would not comment on the significance of Sunday's arrest. But it is apparently the first to involve someone in an alleged leadership role.
More indictments are expected.
It is unclear how soon the Minneapolis man would face charges here. Depending on whether he fights efforts to extradite him, it could be months before he appears in a courtroom here.
At a hearing Tuesday, Dutch authorities ordered that the man be held for 60 days.
Sheikh cleared to fly
In another development Tuesday, Mahir Sherif, an attorney for Sheikh Abdirahman Ahmad, of the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center in south Minneapolis, where many of the missing Somali men were known to socialize or worship, said Ahmad was taken off the federal "no fly" list in the past month.
Ahmad, the spiritual leader of the mosque, learned he was on the list last November when he and Abdulahi Farah, a youth coordinator at Abubakar, were prohibited from boarding a flight to Saudi Arabia as part of a spiritual pilgrimage. Sherif said at the time that he thought the men were put on the list because they and the mosque had been linked by rumor to the disappearance of up to 20 young Somali men, many of whom were known to socialize or worship at Abubakar.
"Obviously, they [the FBI] took the rumors that they had and followed up," Sherif said Tuesday.
The FBI's Wilson wouldn't comment Tuesday on whether Ahmad had been taken off a no-fly list.
But Sherif said that he thinks federal agents concluded that the imam and the mosque were not involved in any way in the disappearance of the men.
"They went through the procedure of the investigation and I think they've confirmed that the sheikh and the center really had nothing to do with the disappearance of these men, either directly or indirectly, that they had nothing to do with financing, they had nothing to do with recruiting, and they had nothing to do with indoctrinating," he said.
Sherif said that Ahmad boarded a domestic flight for the first time in a year on Tuesday. He said he did not know if Farah, the youth director, had also been cleared to fly, but added that he was checking that.
"I'd be surprised if he was on [the list]," he said. "If the sheikh is off, I'd bet he is off. But I can't confirm one way or another."