MINNEAPOLIS – A Minnesota man who joined the terror group al-Shabab in Somalia testified Wednesday he never saw a man accused of supporting recruits take part in secret meetings to plan their trips to the East African country.
Kamal Said Hassan, 27, is the third recruit to testify in the federal trial of Mahamud Said Omar.
Omar, 46, faces five terror counts from a continuing investigation into the recruiting of more than 20 young Somali men who left Minnesota since 2007 to join al-Shabab's fight against the U.N.-backed government in Somalia and Ethiopian troops viewed by many Somalis as invaders.
In the case against Omar, prosecutors must show there was an agreement between more than one person to go to Somalia to join al-Shabab, and that Omar knew of the agreement and joined in. Hassan, who stayed in Somalia longer than other recruits who have testified, said Wednesday he participated in an ambush of Ethiopian troops, a goal of the conspiracy.
Hassan also participated in an al-Shabab training video in which he had a speaking role — urging others to join the fight.
"They wanted one of the people from Minnesota to speak," Hassan said. "They said I had the closest American accent."
Hassan left Minnesota in December 2007, and when he first took the stand Tuesday he described himself as a "foot soldier" for al-Shabab. He said he knew Omar from his work as a janitor at Abubakar as-Saddique Islamic Center but never saw him at meetings at the mosque, restaurants or elsewhere in Minneapolis.
Hassan said Wednesday he was surprised when Omar later told him by phone that he was at an al-Shabab safe house in Merca, a seaside city south of Mogadishu. At the time, other Minnesota men were at the safe house, but Hassan already had moved to another location.
Hassan said Omar told him that he left Minneapolis because Hassan's father had been asking questions about his son's whereabouts and there was "chaos" in Minneapolis over men leaving for Somalia.
Other witnesses have testified that Omar did participate in some of the planning meetings — and gave $500 cash to one traveler before he departed. They also said he stayed at the safe house in Merca for about five days and provided funding for weapons.
Omar is among 18 people charged in the investigation into the pipeline of terror recruits from Minnesota's Somali community to Somalia. Several defendants, including Hassan, have pleaded guilty, and Omar's is the first case to go to trial.
Testimony in the trial's first two weeks has revealed details about how recruiters worked in Minneapolis, including who might have taken lead roles in recruiting, how travel was arranged and efforts to keep the plan a secret.
Omar's attorneys are expected to question Hassan on Thursday.
Hassan's description of how he was persuaded to travel to Somalia echoed earlier testimony by two other men. He described first hearing of the idea at Abubakar, the mosque, during Ramadan 2007.
He said men involved in the plan appealed to his feelings of nationalism and religious beliefs — telling him it was his duty as a Somali and a Muslim to go fight. He said he also had a fiancee in Mogadishu whom he had lost contact with and was trying to reach.
Hassan said he hadn't heard of al-Shabab before the trip, and once he got there, he was told the group was trying to establish a strict form of Sharia law in Somalia and neighboring countries, "all the way to Jerusalem," Hassan said.
Hassan spent about three months in a training camp in Somalia. Key leaders of al-Shabab were there, including Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, al-Qaida's East Africa planner who was killed in a helicopter strike in Somalia in 2009; Jehad Mostafa, a California man and al-Shabab leader under Nabhan; and Omar Hammami, an Alabama man who appears in the group's recruitment videos.
Near the end of Hassan's time at the training camp, a media crew arrived to film some of the exercises. Hassan was given a speaking role in that video. Hassan also appeared in the video of the ambush of Ethiopian troops, and in a video in which another Minneapolis man speaks — urging brothers overseas to join the fight.
After the ambush, Hassan was given permission to go visit family in Merca — and he did not return to al-Shabab. He was eventually arrested and returned to the U.S. He began working with the FBI, but let others believe he was still with al-Shabab. He awaits sentencing on two terror-related counts and one count of lying to the FBI.