A Somali man arrested in the Netherlands and accused of financing Islamic terrorists was not an extremist and was so poor he couldn't afford to bring his new wife from Somalia to the U.S., according to two of his brothers who live in Minnesota.
Mohamud Said Omar, 43, was arrested Sunday at an asylum seeker's center near Amsterdam and is being held at the request of American authorities.
The arrest is related to the FBI's investigation into the disappearance of up to 20 young Somali men who left the Twin Cities over the last two years for Somalia, presumed to have joined the terror group al-Shabaab. Dutch authorities said the U.S. has asked for Omar's extradition, which could take up to a year if he contests it.
Dutch prosecutors said U.S. investigators suspect him of bankrolling the purchase of weapons for Islamic militants and helping other Somalis travel to Somalia in 2007 and 2008.
Abdullahi Said Omar, Mohamud's younger brother in Minneapolis, and another brother, Mohamed Osman, said Mohamud worked low-paying jobs to make ends meet, and didn't have enough money to send to terrorists. They believe their brother is innocent.
"He was homeless, he didn't even have a place to stay," said Osman, 51, of Rochester, Minn.
Abdullahi said he and Mohamud left Somalia soon after graduating from high school and lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for a time, before moving to the U.S. in 1993, living first in Virginia and moving to Minnesota in 1999.
Omar traveled to Somalia in early 2008 to marry a woman there, Abdullahi said, but had not been able to scrape together enough money to bring her back home with him. Mohamud returned to the U.S. after the wedding and got a job as a fruit truck driver to earn money to bring his wife to the U.S. He said Mohamud also worked on an assembly line for a time.
Omar left the U.S. in November 2008 to make a hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Abdullahi said, then he went to the Netherlands. Abdullahi said his brother had tried unsuccessfully to get U.S. citizenship and that it was not a surprise he hadn't returned after his trip to Mecca.
Evan Kohlmann, a senior investigator with the NEFA (Nine Eleven Finding Answers) Foundation, which researches Islamic militants, said it was still possible for someone with limited means to help finance terrorist activities _ especially in a place like Somalia, where one can live cheaply. Terror groups like al-Shabaab have learned that, he said.
"What these guys have discovered is, if you pool enough people together, even relatively meager personal resources can be marshalled in a way where you can have a fairly significant impact," he said.
Osman said he had not spoken to Mohamud for about a year, but that he was not as surprised as his brother to learn of Mohamud's arrest, saying Mohamud had worked as a janitor at the Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, the largest mosque in Minnesota, and sometimes served as a driver for people that Osman suspects might have had ties to al-Shabaab in Somalia. Both brothers said Mohamud earned $800 a month working at the mosque.
He described his brother as highly open to suggestion from authority figures.
"I think my brother, what they are doing is scapegoating him," said Osman.
"He's the same like me _ just normal," Abdullahi said. "We pray five times a day and follow our religion, but we are not extremists."
A person working in the mosque's main office this week declined to say anything about Mohamud or confirm he worked there. None of about 20 other people at the mosque approached by a reporter, both workers and citizens, would admit to knowing Mohamud or recognizing his name.
Details of Mohamud's case were sealed in the Netherlands under that nation's privacy laws, and U.S. authorities have declined to discuss the case except to confirm it is related to the Minneapolis investigation.
Omar's Dutch attorney, Audrey Kessels, told the daily newspaper De Volkskrant that because Omar had a U.S. green card, he was ineligible for asylum in the Netherlands and his request was quickly rejected. She said he had appealed the decision on the basis of illness. Omar had told her he couldn't find work in America and "didn't have any peace in his head." Osman said his brother suffered from sleep problems and was often scared of other people.
"He didn't make a healthy impression," Kessels said.
At least three of the men who left the Minneapolis area have died, including one who carried out a suicide bombing in the semiautonomous Puntland region in October 2008. Three have pleaded guilty to terror-related charges in federal court in Minneapolis; a fourth has pleaded guilty to perjury, and a fifth has pleaded not guilty to lying to the FBI.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991, when warlords overthrew a socialist dictator and then turned on each other, causing chaos in the African nation of 7 million.
Tens of thousands of Somalis resettled in Minnesota in the last two decades, and the state now has the largest Somali population in the United States. Abdullahi Said Omar owns and runs a discount store in a part of Minneapolis populated by many Somali immigrants.
Abdullahi said that his brother had called him from the Netherlands early Thursday morning on his cell phone while he was sleeping, and left a message that indicated he thought he could return to America.
"He said he's in the jail and he's doing well," Abdullahi said. "He said he thinks maybe they'll send him back here."