A Minnesota man pleaded guilty Monday to a terror charge for helping Somali men travel from Minneapolis to their homeland to take up arms with a militant group, averting what would have been the first trial in a long-running federal investigation into the recruiting of U.S. fighters for al-Shabab.
Omer Abdi Mohamed, 26, of St. Anthony entered his plea the day before he was to face trial on six counts. He pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, specifically admitting he helped provide people as part of a conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim others in a foreign country.
He faces a maximum of 15 years in prison and supervised release for the rest of his life when sentenced later.
Mohamed didn't travel to Somalia, but admitted he attended secret meetings and helped with the men who traveled. "I helped them get tickets," he said in court.
At least 21 Somalis are believed to have traveled to Somalia to join the terror group al-Shabab in what began as a push to expel Ethiopian soldiers seen as invaders. At least four Minnesota men have died_ two by suicide bombings. In the U.S., an investigation centered in Minneapolis continues, with an 18th person charged just last month.
Previous plea bargains have kept evidence in the investigation mostly under wraps, and Mohamed's trial had the potential to reveal more about the recruiting than has been known before.
Mohamed's attorney, Peter Wold, said his client's case was strong but that he chose to plead guilty because he has a young son and another child on the way, and he faced the possibility of a much longer sentence if convicted.
Wold described Mohamed as someone who was motivated by patriotism and wanted to help others defend his homeland from "mortal enemies."
"He was only involved in a mission to protect Somalia," Wold said, adding that Mohamed discouraged young people from going, and later encouraged some of the travelers to return home.
"Omer has nothing to do with terrorists," he said.
The political landscape was different at the time, Wold said. Mohamed didn't know what al-Shabab was all about, he said, but does now and opposes the group.
Charles Kovats, an assistant U.S. attorney, declined to comment.
U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones said in a statement that members of the conspiracy "violated the law in a dangerous and misguided effort to support a terrorist organization." He said the effort tore apart many Somali-American families.
"In some instances family members discovered what happened to their relatives only by watching Internet videos being used as propaganda by al-Shabab," Jones said. He added that he hopes continued prosecutions against those involved will help deter "these ill-advised actions in the future."
While answering questions from his attorney and the prosecutor, Mohamed told the court he was born in Somalia in 1985 and came to the U.S. in the mid-1990s because of turmoil in his homeland.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991, when warlords overthrew a socialist dictator then turned on each other. In 2006, Ethiopian soldiers viewed as abusive by many Somalis occupied parts of Somalia and a militant group called al-Shabab began fighting against them. The U.S. declared al-Shabab a terrorist organization in early 2008.
But in late 2007, anti-Ethiopian sentiment was running high among the Somali diaspora in Minnesota. When Wold asked Mohamed about that in court, Mohamed said: "It was everywhere."
Mohamed admitted that from September through December 2007, he attended meetings at mosques, restaurants and a residence in which members discussed and planned traveling to Somalia to fight. He admitted he was present when men raised money, and that he used his contact at a local travel agency to help travelers get airline tickets. He also admitted he obtained a fake itinerary for one man who wanted to mislead his parents.
He admitted he knew the men would commit acts to "murder, kidnap or maim" others in Somalia.
Mohamed has been free on electronic monitoring. Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis allowed that to continue.
Five others have already pleaded guilty to various counts in the government's investigation into the travelers, who began leaving Minnesota in small groups as early as October 2007. Prosecutors say that once in Somalia, the travelers went to al-Shabab safe houses and helped construct a training camp, where they received weapons training from senior members of al-Shabab and al-Qaida.
In July 2008, men from Minneapolis participated in an al-Shabab ambush of Ethiopian troops along a road in Somalia. The preparations and the ambush were filmed as part of a propaganda video. Prosecutors say a man from Minneapolis appears in that video, encouraging more men to join the fighters in Somalia.
E.K. Wilson, an FBI supervisory special agent in charge of the Minneapolis investigation, said last week the case has been complex. Agents have spent years trying to identify people who left for Somalia and those who recruited and supported them, he said, as well as stopping further recruiting.
Most importantly, Wilson said, the FBI is working to prevent a threat from returning to the United States.
"We do not have any specific or credible information that any case of that is in the works, but that is our No. 1 priority," he said.