MINNEAPOLIS – Kamal Said Hassan didn't know what al-Shabab was when he agreed to join a jihad in Somalia in autumn 2007. Months later, the young man who had never picked up a gun was a foot soldier for the terror group in his homeland, practicing with assault rifles, participating in an ambush — and willing to kill in the name of Allah.
Hassan, 27, is one of more than 20 young men who left Minnesota in recent years to take up arms with al-Shabab, a U.S.-designated terror group in Somalia that's linked to al-Qaida. Hassan's story, told this week as he testified in the trial of another Minnesota man, provides insight into how recruiters in the state used patriotic appeals and religion to draw young men in, and how al-Shabab leaders in Somalia used fear and propaganda to keep them under control.
"I made a huge mistake by deciding to go overseas to fight," Hassan testified this week.
"It was more than a mistake," said Jon Hopeman, an attorney for Mahamud Said Omar, who is on trial on five terror-related counts. "You became a terrorist, right?"
"I did, sir," Hassan replied.
Like other young Somalis in Minnesota, Hassan left the East African country as a child when civil war broke out in 1991 and spent years in a refugee camp before his family came to the U.S. He didn't grow up in a strict Muslim family and wasn't active at a mosque — until the summer of 2007, when he began attending Abubakar as-Saddique Islamic Center in Minneapolis. Like some of the other travelers, he spent the night there during Ramadan that year.
There, he was told about a plan to go to Somalia to wage a jihad against Ethiopians — who were brought into the country in 2006 by Somalia's weak U.N.-backed government but were seen by many Somalis as invaders. Hassan heard that Ethiopians were killing Somalis and was told it was his "duty" to fight.
"I thought it was going to be an adventure," he said.
Omar is among 18 people charged in the investigation into the pipeline of terror recruits from Minnesota — which has the largest Somali population in the U.S. — to Somalia. Several defendants, including Hassan, have pleaded guilty, and Omar's is the first case to go to trial. So far, three Minnesota men who traveled to Somalia have testified at Omar's trial, outlining the effort to funnel recruits. Omar's attorneys say he's innocent of the charges.
Hassan and others testified that their plan to go to Somalia was a secret. They were told that if parents or mosque leaders found out, the trip wouldn't happen. So they held private meetings and used code, referring to the plan as "the deal" and to each other as "brothers."
With each meeting, Hassan felt more connected and his desire to go to Somalia grew. The men were told they'd go to paradise if they became martyrs. One man often quoted passages about fighting from the Quran.
"When he was reciting those and interpreting — I believed what he was saying," Hassan said. "I thought I was being a good Muslim and Somalian by joining these men."
The men also heard from someone in Somalia who was supposed to help them once they got there. The person was an uncle of Khalid Mohamed Abshir, whom Hassan viewed as one of the Minneapolis leaders of the plan. Over the phone, the uncle gave the group an update on the fighting and told the men everything would be taken care of once they arrived in Somalia.
In Somalia, Abshir's uncle took Hassan's passport, laptop and wallet. Hassan was brought to an al-Shabab safe house in Merca, where he and other Minnesota men were visited by leaders of al-Shabab. One leader said the group's goal was "to take over Somalia and neighboring countries all the way to Jerusalem," Hassan testified.
Hassan said that at one point, he tried to get his travel documents to go back to Minnesota, but Abshir's uncle said he could not go home.
Hassan and others eventually went on to a training camp, which they had to build. They heard radical teachings and were told that if they tried to go back to the U.S., they would go to prison.
Hassan was there about three months, learning to use AK-47s and other weapons.
Near the end of Hassan's time at the camp, a media crew arrived to film some of the exercises. Hassan was given a speaking role, in which he urged others to take up arms. He testified that another man who appeared in the group's recruitment videos told him to say those words.
Hassan and others then went on an ambush of Ethiopian troops, which was videotaped and later used as propaganda. The ambush didn't go as planned, and Hassan did not fire his weapon. When ordered to retreat, Hassan said, he had to crawl backward into the woods to escape.
After several weeks, his group returned to camp. Hassan was given permission to visit family in Merca and he left al-Shabab. After returning to the U.S., he pleaded guilty to terror charges and began working undercover for the FBI.
He awaits sentencing on two terror-related counts and one count of lying to federal agents.
Omar's trial continues next week in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.
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