MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A Somali man and former Minneapolis resident is scheduled to make his first appearance in a Minnesota courtroom on charges he helped recruit about 20 young men to travel to Somalia and fight with the terror group al-Shabab.
Mohamud Said Omar had been in custody in the Netherlands since 2009. U.S. officials had been working since then to extradite him to face U.S. charges, and a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones confirmed Thursday that Omar would make an initial appearance Friday in a St. Paul federal courtroom.
Charges against Omar, 45, allege he gave travel money to some of the young Somali men who left Minneapolis for Somalia in 2007 and 2008 to take up with al-Shabab. The U.S. has designated al-Shabab a terrorist organization and said it has ties to al-Qaida.
Omar is alleged to have traveled to Somalia himself in 2008. Federal prosecutors say while there, he provided money to purchase AK-47 assault rifles to be used for training and fighting on behalf of al-Shabaab.
E.K. Wilson, supervisory special agent in charge of the FBI’s investigation, said Thursday the extradition from the Netherlands was a long and detailed process but that getting Omar into a federal courtroom was a key step in the ongoing investigation.
“It’s important for us to get to this point in the investigation and continue to move things forward,” Wilson said. He added it “does not represent an end of the road for this investigation.”
Peter Erlinder, a Minnesota law professor retained by Omar’s family in Minnesota to help with the case, said Omar is mentally ill and stopped fighting extradition about three months ago against the advice of his Dutch attorney.
Erlinder said he believed Omar had a good chance of avoiding extradition because of differences in the way Europe and the U.S. prosecute terrorists, but said Omar without explanation dismissed his attorney and cut off communication with his family in Minnesota.
“If this is the kind of person the FBI thinks is responsible for organizing large scale operations, they’re hanging their theory on a very thin thread,” Erlinder said. “He has a history of mental illness, and in light of what’s happened over the last few months it’s obvious he has a hard time understanding what’s in his best interest.”
Erlinder said Omar was in custody in Minnesota Thursday and that he hoped to speak with him before Friday’s afternoon court appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeanne Graham in St. Paul.
In all, more than a dozen individuals have been charged in an investigation that experts have called one of the largest of its kind. Roughly 20 young men, almost all ethnic Somalis, left Minneapolis in waves from December 2007 to November 2008 to fight Ethiopian government troops in their war-torn homeland, a number of them eventually turning up dead. The departures deeply unsettled the Twin Cities’ large Somali community.
Omar was indicted on Aug. 20, 2009, on five counts of providing material support to terrorists and conspiracy to kill people outside the United States. He is accused of being involved with most of the young men who left. According to an affidavit in the case, he gave cash to an initial group that left in late 2007, then traveled to Somalia himself in early 2008 where he stayed at an al-Shabab safehouse for several days and provided the money for rifles.
Omar returned to the U.S. that April and allegedly accompanied several young men bound for Somalia to the airport, and allegedly hosted a gathering that included several more young men who left for Somalia in the following days. Authorities say Omar traveled in late 2008 from Minneapolis to Amsterdam, and had purchased a return ticket to Minneapolis; but FBI agents waiting at the Minneapolis airport discovered he was not on the flight. He was arrested in November 2009 at an asylum seeker’s center near Amsterdam.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991, when warlords overthrew a socialist dictator and then turned on each other. Minnesota has the largest Somali immigrant population of any U.S. state.
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