MINNEAPOLIS — One recruiter was a smooth talker who would introduce young Somali men to others planning to leave Minnesota to wage jihad back home. Another had an uncle in Somalia who would help the men once they arrived. A third would quote the Quran to deepen the recruits' resolve.
Testimony in the trial of a Minneapolis man convicted of helping funnel young men from Minnesota to Somalia to join the terrorist group al-Shabab brought new details of the government's yearslong investigation into the recruiting pipeline to light, including how alleged leaders of the conspiracy in Minneapolis worked together to indoctrinate new members.
Many of these ringleaders are presumed to be in Somalia — and catching them and others is "at the top of the priority list," said E.K. Wilson, the supervisory special agent overseeing the FBI's investigation.
Mahamud Said Omar, 46, was convicted Thursday of five terrorism-related counts that stemmed from a government investigation into what it said was the recruitment of more than 20 men who have left Minnesota since 2007 to join al-Shabab, a U.S.-designated terrorist group linked to al-Qaida that's blamed for much of the violence in the East African country.
Omar's attorneys say he plans to appeal. While Omar, a mosque janitor, was not portrayed as a leader of the scheme, authorities said he played a significant role in pushing men into a pipeline that they say — by sheer number of recruits alone — represents one of the largest efforts to pull U.S. fighters into a foreign terrorist group.
Much of the trial testimony focused on the overall investigation, which took years.
"Some folks are still fugitives and some folks lost their lives in the Horn of Africa, and there are still related ongoing investigations," B. Todd Jones, the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, said after the verdict. "This isn't the end of this kind of activity."
Among the government witnesses who testified were three recruits who returned to the U.S. after traveling to Somalia to join al-Shabab's fight against Ethiopian troops who were brought into Somalia by its weak U.N.-backed government.
While their stories differed slightly in detail, they all portrayed three men — Ahmed Ali Omar, Khalid Mohamed Abshir, and Omer Abdi Mohamed — as leaders of the recruiting effort for the group of travelers who left in 2007.
According to witness testimony, Omar was talkative and brought new men into the fold, telling them they'd be waging jihad against troops from neighboring Ethiopia, who were seen by many Somalis as invaders and who since have left.
Abshir had an uncle in Somalia who was a member of al-Shabab, and he reassured the recruits they'd be taken care of, witnesses said. The uncle was among the first people the recruits met in their early days in Somalia.
Witnesses said Mohamed was charismatic and well-versed in the Quran. One witness said Mohamed told the group that if they died while fighting non-Muslims, they would go to paradise and their sins would be forgiven.
"Most verses that he recited were something that had to do with fighting and battles," said Kamal Said Hassan, a witness in the case. "I believed what he was saying."
The recruits said the men told them to keep the plan secret. One witness said Mohamed told the recruits to travel in small groups and book round-trip tickets to avoid detection. He also helped one traveler get a false travel itinerary so he could get his passport from his parents.
The presumed leaders also had some power struggles in Minneapolis. When Omar invited two high school students two join the group of travelers in 2007, Abshir decided they were too young and their disappearances would expose the plan. The pair ended up being among the travelers who left for Somalia in 2008.
Omar and Abshir went to Somalia themselves and are at-large. They continued to use their forceful personalities to influence people there. Omar appeared in a recruiting video, urging others to come join the fight. He also made calls to Minneapolis when the fighters needed cash, and in 2008, he directed the defendant in the recent case to help a new group of travelers get tickets, according to court testimony.
Abshir was supposed to stay in Minnesota and finance the fighters but fled to Somalia in late 2007 after learning he was suspected of recruiting. He, too, exerted influence from Somalia.
Witnesses said one recruit, Shirwa Ahmed, was reluctant to make the trip because scholars had told him it wasn't right and that the recruits had been tricked. But the witnesses said Abshir persuaded Ahmed to go — and Ahmed killed himself in October 2008 in a suicide bombing.
Mohamed, who never traveled to Somalia, has pleaded guilty to his role in the conspiracy and is awaiting sentencing. His attorney, Peter Wold, said the idea that his client has been a leader seems to have come up only recently. In preparing for Mohamed's trial last year, Wold said he received no evidence that his client was using religious appeals to recruit.
"This is the first time I've ever heard that," Wold said. "I'd like to know when that first surfaced."
Jones, the U.S. attorney, said after years of exhaustive work, authorities were relieved to share details about the case with the "eyes of the world." He cautioned that the investigation isn't over, and said the government is taking reports that more men have left for Somalia in recent months "very seriously."
"We always have to remain vigilant," Jones said.
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