MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A Minnesota terrorism suspect used young men as "cannon fodder" when he helped send them from Minneapolis to their native Somalia to join the al-Qaida-linked group al-Shabab, a federal prosecutor said Wednesday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty told jurors during closing arguments of a nearly three-week trial that they should convict Mahamud Said Omar, who is charged with five terror-related counts that accuse him of participating in a conspiracy and providing support to the terrorist group.
Docherty said the evidence shows Omar helped feed fighters into a terror pipeline that recruited young men from Minnesota, which is home to the largest Somali population in the U.S.
"After other people had indoctrinated these young men, he helped them. He helped them physically and he helped them financially to get to Somalia to join al-Shabab," Docherty said.
Defense attorney Andrew Birrell said the prosecution's case was built on the corrupt testimony of al-Shabab recruits who have repeatedly lied and only testified because they hoped to reduce their own prison sentences.
"This case demonstrates why our government should not make deals with terrorists," Birrell said. "They make the whole case unreliable."
The government's case against Omar, 46, is the first to go to trial in a long-running investigation of recruiting by al-Shabab, a U.S.-designated terror group at the center of much of the violence in Somalia. Authorities say that since 2007, more than 20 young men have gone to the East African nation from Minnesota to join the group.
At least six of those men have died and others are presumed dead, according to family members and the FBI. Others are presumed to still be in Somalia.
Earlier defendants in the case pleaded guilty and most have yet to be sentenced. Omar faces life in prison if convicted.
Docherty said there was a conspiracy in Minnesota to send men to Somalia to wage jihad against Ethiopians — who were brought into Somalia in 2006 by its weak U.N.-backed government, though they were seen by many Somalis as invaders. The prosecutor said Omar entered the conspiracy in 2007, when he met with two men on their way to Somalia at a restaurant, giving one man money and wishing both good luck.
Omar is accused of helping travelers get tickets, staying at an al-Shabab safe house in Somalia, providing $1,000 for AK-47's and bringing two young men to the Minneapolis airport in August 2008.
Docherty ticked off key evidence for jurors: Omar's own statements, including when he told the FBI he went to Somalia to join al-Shabab; intercepted telephone conversations and testimony from other witnesses who either traveled to Somalia or helped travelers; and business documents, including money transfer and travel records.
He reminded the jury of the death of Shirwa Ahmed, a Minneapolis man who killed himself in a suicide bombing in Somalia in 2008. After that bombing, Docherty said, Omar's response was to "shove more men" toward al-Shabab. Docherty said Omar took a group of men to a travel agency to get tickets, and ferried one man to a bank to withdraw money for a ticket. That man, Jamal Aweys Sheikh Bana, later died in Somalia.
"Maybe al-Shabab needed more cannon fodder, and al-Shabab knew where to get more cannon fodder — here," Docherty told jurors in a Minneapolis courtroom. "And the defendant was the guy who moved the cannon fodder through the pipeline."
Docherty also said that on the days when some of the men left in 2008, Omar called them several times before their flights and again on their layovers en route to Somalia — to make sure they hadn't decided to run away. He said any suggestion that Omar wasn't capable of organizing anything is false.
"What you are seeing here is an al-Shabab team leader at work," Docherty said.
But Omar's attorney called Omar "a frightened little man" who "never directed anything in his life."
The men who went to Somalia were younger and better educated than Omar — perfectly capable of arranging trips on their own, Birrell said in his closing argument. The structure for sending men to Somalia was already in place, as others worked to recruit and fundraise, he said, and the group "did not need guidance from a computer illiterate janitor."
Omar didn't go to a single organizational meeting in 2007, didn't go to an al-Shabab training camp, didn't preach the Quran, didn't participate in any fighting or touch a gun, Birrell said. The attorney also told jurors that not one witness said Omar committed an act of violence against America, and when first arrested, Omar said he never gave al-Shabab money.
"The skeleton in this case they are trying to create has no spine and it falls," Birrell said.
Birrell said the FBI conducted its investigation backward, that agents were under pressure to figure out why young men were leaving Minnesota for Somalia, so they arrested three men who had traveled to Somalia — then accepted their lies as truth and built the case around them.
"They lied through their teeth," he said.
Docherty said the three travelers did tell lies at first, but taken in totality, their stories match. He said evidence supports their testimony and the facts can't be wished away.
He said Omar was right when he told FBI agents: "We could've organized other groups but you chased us out."
"That's exactly what the defendant was doing," Docherty said. "He was organizing groups."
A jury of four men and eight women began deliberating Wednesday afternoon. Deliberations will continue Thursday.
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