MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Nine people convicted in a government investigation of terror recruitment and financing for an al-Qaida-linked group in Somalia are to be sentenced this week in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.
Authorities say more than 20 young men have left Minnesota to join al-Shabab since 2007. Some have died, several remain at large, and others have been prosecuted in what the FBI has said is one of the largest efforts to recruit U.S. fighters to a foreign terrorist organization.
Some of the issues in the case, based on court testimony, court documents and AP interviews:
HOW IT BEGAN
In 2007, small groups of young Somali men began holding secret meetings at a Minneapolis mosque, in cars, and at restaurants to talk about returning to their homeland to wage jihad against Ethiopians. The Ethiopians had been brought into Somalia in 2006 by its weak U.N.-backed government, but were viewed by many Somalis as invaders.
Al-Shabab recruiters in Minneapolis appealed to patriotic ideals and told young men — some in their teens — that it was their “duty” to return to Somalia and fight. Recruiters also quoted from the Quran, appealing to religious beliefs to deepen the fighters’ resolve.
The men began leaving Minnesota in small groups to avoid detection, with the first departing Minneapolis on Oct. 30, 2007. Additional groups left in waves over the next months and years, with some raising money for their trips under false pretenses.
The FBI began investigating in 2008. The U.S. declared al-Shabab a terrorist organization in early 2008.
ACTIVITIES IN SOMALIA
Some of the Minnesota men who went to Somalia said that when they arrived, they were asked to change their names and give up their travel documents. One said he was threatened with beheading if he tried to leave. The men spent time at an al-Shabab safehouse in Somalia, then went on to build a training camp.
From there, some participated in an ambush of Ethiopian troops, which was filmed by a high-ranking al-Shabab member and used as propaganda. One Minnesotan had a speaking role in the film, urging more men to join the cause.
Some of the Minnesota men who remained in Somalia have gone on to hold leadership positions, or are responsible for significant duties in al-Shabab.
FIRST U.S. CITIZEN SUICIDE BOMBER
On Oct. 29, 2008, Shirwa Ahmed of Minneapolis detonated a suicide bomb in Somalia by driving an explosive-laden truck into an office of the Puntland Intelligence Service. It was one of five coordinated attacks that day that left nearly 30 people dead, including the suicide bombers.
Ahmed left Minnesota in 2007. Authorities said he is the first known U.S. citizen to carry out a suicide bombing. FBI director Robert Mueller said months after his death that it appeared Ahmed was “radicalized” in Minnesota.
The FBI has said a total of six men from Minnesota have died in Somalia. More are presumed dead.
THE CASE BY THE NUMBERS
At least 22 men have left Minnesota since 2007, including two who left as recently as last July.
A total of 18 men — including some travelers and some who did not go to Somalia — have been charged in the Minnesota case. Seven of those have pleaded guilty to various charges — ranging from providing material support to terrorists to perjury, and an eighth man was convicted on five terror-related counts after a trial last year.
The rest of those who face criminal charges are either at large, dead or presumed dead.
The defendants who face sentencing include a man who authorities say played a major role in facilitating and financing travel for recruits by helping arrange plane tickets and plan travel routes, among other things. Mohamed Said Omar will be sentenced on five terror-related counts. Prosecutors intend to ask for a total of 50 years.
Another man, Omer Abdi Mohamed, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists. Prosecutors said he was a leader in recruiting, using the Quran to pull in young men. Mohamed faces a maximum of 15 years in prison.
The other men being sentenced include three who traveled to Somalia themselves, then returned to the United States after spending time at an al-Shabab training camp; one man who pleaded guilty to perjury for lying about whether he knew two of the travelers; and a seventh man, who most recently lived in Ohio, who admitted he helped raise money.
Two women from southern Minnesota will also be sentenced this week. Amina Farah Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan were convicted in 2011 of conspiring to funnel more than $8,600 to al-Shabab from September 2008 through July 2009. Probation officers have recommended from 30 years to life in prison for each. Prosecutors have not said what sentence they would seek.
Prosecutors said the women went door-to-door in the name of charity and held religious teleconferences to solicit donations, which they then routed to the fighters. Defense attorneys painted the women as humanitarians giving money to orphans and poor people, as well as to a group they felt was working to push foreign troops out of Somalia.
MINNESOTA’S SOMALI COMMUNITY
Minnesota has the largest Somali population in the United States, and there is a strong connection between the Diaspora and the homeland. Many local Somalis frequently send money to family back home, and many others have returned to Somalia in recent years to help rebuild that country’s government.
News that some men had left to join al-Shabab — and the subsequent federal investigations and subpoenas — put the community on edge. A mosque that came under scrutiny because some of the men held private meetings there held an open house to assure the public that it was not recruiting. Meanwhile, family members of some of the men who left denounced efforts to radicalize youth and called for swift action from the U.S. government.
Abdirizak Bihi, an uncle of a young man who left Minnesota in 2008 and was killed in Somalia, said he is looking forward to the sentencings, and hopes they pave the way for the eventual arrest of those behind the recruitment.
“This is a good step in the right direction,” he said. “I am so happy that after four and a half years we have come a long way.”
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