MINNEAPOLIS – A Minnesota man who spent two months with a terrorist group in his native Somalia told a jury Tuesday that another man on trial for allegedly helping funnel recruits to the group provided money to buy weapons for fighters.
Salah Osman Ahmed, 29, testified that while he was staying at an al-Shabab safe house in Merca, Somalia, the defendant, Mahamud Said Omar, spent about five days there. He said Omar gave the woman who ran the house about $300 for expenses as well as money to buy AK-47s for two fighters, which he said cost about $500 each. Ahmed said Omar also gave another traveler $500.
Omar, 46, has pleaded not guilty to five terrorism-related counts and if convicted, could be sentenced to life in prison. He is one of 18 people who have been charged in an ongoing investigation into the travels and recruitment of more than 20 young Somali men who have left Minnesota since 2007 to join al-Shabab's fight against the U.N.-backed government in Somalia.
Several defendants, including Ahmed, have pleaded guilty and Omar's is the first case to go to trial. Testimony so far has revealed details about how the network of 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.
On cross-examination, Omar's attorney, Jon Hopeman, questioned whether Ahmed actually saw Omar give money to others. Ahmed replied he did not.
Prosecutor William Narus asked how Ahmed knew about the money for the weapons. Ahmed said the woman in charge at the safe house told the men from the West they had to buy their own weapons. Omar said he would buy two guns, and later, the woman told the men she had enough money for the guns, Ahmed testified.
Ahmed said Omar also told the Minneapolis guys to stick together, because other people in Somalia should not be trusted.
Ahmed testified Omar left the safe house to get married, and Ahmed thought Omar would join the group after his wedding. When the group went to another house in Baarawe, Omar didn't join them.
Hopeman asked Ahmed whether Omar ever attended an al-Shabab training camp, ever tried to convince Ahmed to join the group, ever took orders from al-Shabab, or drove Ahmed and his friends to the airport when they departed for Somalia. Ahmed testified that Omar did none of those things.
Ahmed has pleaded guilty to one terror-related count and has remained free while awaiting sentencing. He had been in jail for about nine months and is cooperating with prosecutors in hopes of getting a reduced sentence.
Hopeman said Ahmed committed "very serious crimes."
"You knew the only way you could get a key to the jail was by cooperating with the government," Hopeman said. Ahmed replied that telling the truth was better than being quiet and spending life in prison.
Hopeman asked Ahmed if he was a criminal, or a terrorist. When Ahmed replied no, Hopeman asked, "Are you a junior terrorist? ... Are you an assistant terrorist?" Ahmed said he thought he was protecting his country.
After his testimony, Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis dismissed jurors for an afternoon break, then changed the conditions of Ahmed's release, putting him back on location monitoring. Davis also said Ahmed must turn in his passport and refrain from getting a new one, and he forbade Ahmed from leaving Minnesota without permission.
Ahmed's attorney, Jim Ostgard, asked Davis why he changed the conditions. Davis responded that he "listened to his testimony" and noted another judge had the case initially.
"I'm putting electronic monitoring on him so I know where he's at, unless you would like him taken into custody," Davis said.
Another Minnesotan who went to Somalia also began testifying Tuesday.
Kamal Said Hassan, 27, said he was a "foot soldier" for al-Shabab. He said that he first learned about the idea of going to fight for al-Shabab from Ahmed at a mosque during Ramadan in 2007.
Hassan said he considered some people leaders of the recruiting in Minnesota, and others were "senior members" of the group. He classified himself and Ahmed as recruits. He said members of the group held secret meetings to talk about traveling to fight against Ethiopians and ways to raise money for tickets.
In one meeting, the group got an update about fighting from someone in Somalia, Hassan said.
Hassan, who answered Narus' questions with "Yes, sir," or "No, sir," sad he knew Omar from Omar's work as a janitor at the mosque. He also said his parents knew Omar because they lived in the same apartment complex years earlier.
Narus asked if Hassan ever saw Omar at any of the secret meetings.
"No sir, I never saw him in any meeting," Hassan testified.
Hassan is expected to continue his testimony Wednesday.