Mohamed Roble was weeks shy of his 11th birthday when the school bus he was on plummeted more than 30 feet as the bridge beneath gave way.
Now, according to court testimony in a federal terrorism trial, Roble — one of the 145 people injured in the I-35W bridge collapse that killed 13 people — is believed to be in Syria with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Roble and four of his siblings were on the bus that was carrying 52 students and several adults when the bridge collapsed on Aug. 1, 2007, sending shock waves nationwide about the safety of the country’s infrastructure. All of the occupants of their bus survived.
His injuries included headaches, arm, neck and back pain, nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder, records show. One letter from a therapist said Roble “seems the most traumatized of all the siblings” and “he worked on his spiritual belief that ‘God had saved him for a purpose.’ ”
Records show Roble’s parents believed he was having a hard time dealing with the disaster, and that he did not follow through with counseling. Records from an initial session show Roble met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder and “believes he is a jinx, and that there is something wrong with him.”
For his injuries, a 2009 state court order says, Roble was due to receive a lump-sum payment of $65,431.22 on his 18th birthday — roughly a month and a half before federal prosecutors say he left the U.S. for Istanbul, Turkey.
It is unclear if Roble collected all of the money, but he would have had access to the account and control of the funds.
Roble’s name surfaced in federal court last week during the trial of three Minnesota men accused of conspiring to travel to Syria to join ISIL. Testimony has suggested that at least some of the men in the group knew Roble had money and asked him to fund their own trips. One man believed Roble had gone to Syria with thousands of dollars and used it to pay for weddings for fighters and cars.
In recordings by an FBI informant that were played at trial, awareness of Roble’s funding source by other conspirators seemed limited to an unspecified accident settlement.
“The guy’s just ballin out, passing out money like it’s candy,” defendant Guled Omar is heard saying on the recordings. The informant, Abdirahman Bashiir, played basketball with Roble in tournaments.
“We all knew he had money and we were asking if he could give us some money for travel,” he said.
The bridge collapse was not mentioned during the trial. The Associated Press made the connection using state court records to trace the bridge collapse victim to his high school yearbook picture, which matched a photo the government has provided of the young man believed to be in Syria. A handful of people who knew the family also confirmed the match.
According to evidence presented in federal court last week, Roble flew to Istanbul in October 2014 as part of an itinerary that included a trip to China. He was due to return to the U.S. in June 2015, but never did, FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force Officer Joel Pajak testified.
“We received information that Mr. Roble ended up in Syria with his uncle, Abdi Nur,” Pajak testified.
Nur is among 10 men charged in the case and is believed to be fighting with ISIL; six others have pleaded guilty, and testimony in the trial of the other three wrapped up on Friday.
Prosecutors say the men were part of a group of friends who recruited and inspired each other to join ISIL. Roble has not been charged, but prosecutors included his picture in a court exhibit that contains the photos of 16 men who authorities say joined or conspired to join militant groups in Syria and Somalia.
‘Knew that he had money’
Little has been revealed about Roble, but testimony suggests at least some of the men knew he had money.
Under questioning from Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Winter, Bashiir said that Roble “had a lot of money from an accident before, and got a settlement.”
“Some kind of insurance settlement?” Winter asked.
“Yes,” Bashiir said.
It isn’t clear whether Roble actually funded trips for potential travelers, and evidence so far suggests he did not. Bashiir’s testimony showed the men struggled to find ways to finance their own travel.
But in the secretly recorded conversation where Omar told Bashiir that Roble was passing out money like “candy,” Omar said Roble used the money in Syria to finance weddings and cars for fighters.
The men also used Skype to communicate with Roble and Nur abroad, according to testimony.
Another witness in the case testified that Roble’s social media accounts contained images of guns, other fighters and posts about how Roble felt blessed to be in “sham” — a term for a territory that includes Syria.
Wilbur Fluegel, who represented Roble in the bridge collapse litigation, said he doesn’t know what Roble has been doing, saying he last worked with him in 2009.
A ‘tragic coincidence’
Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali community leader who has led local efforts to combat extremism, said he was jarred by the allegations. Instead of improving his life through higher education and helping his family, Bihi said he was surprised to hear that Roble may be using the money to fund terrorist activities.
“Just imagine how much better his future could have been with that kind of [capital]. That’s a tremendous amount of money for a young man in this community,” said Bihi, whose own nephew was killed after joining Al-Shabab.
Several lawmakers also expressed dismay that money appropriated by the Legislature to help victims of the bridge collapse may have ended up in the hands of ISIL.
“It is such a misappropriation about what everyone’s positive intentions were,” said Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River.
Former DFL congressman Ryan Winkler, who helped establish the compensation fund for I-35W bridge survivors, called it a “tragic coincidence.”
“Using money from any source in terrorist activities is reprehensible and that’s why we have a national push to defeat ISIL and to stop terrorism globally,” he said. “They’re not related things. It’s just a strange link and obviously unfortunate connection to a terrible tragedy in Minnesota.”
Associated Press writer Steve Karnowski and Star Tribune staff writers Andy Mannix and Liz Sawyer contributed to this report.