MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A man who left the U.S. to join fighters in Somalia testified Thursday against a Minnesota man on trial for supporting terrorism, saying he saw the man hand $500 in cash to another al-Shabab recruit while they were at a secret meeting to plan their travel.
Abdifatah Yusuf Isse also told jurors he saw Mahamud Said Omar at the cramped safe house where he stayed once he got to Somalia, where he was forced to take a new name and give up his travel documents. He said the purpose of his trip was "to wage jihad" against Ethiopians in Somalia.
Omar, 46, is charged with five terror-related counts in a federal trial that is part of a broader investigation into recruiting by al-Shabab, a U.S.-designated terror group linked to al-Qaida that is at the center of much of the violence in Somalia.
Authorities say that since 2007, more than 20 young men went to the East African nation from Minnesota, home to the largest Somali population in the U.S. At least six of those men have died and others are presumed dead, according to family members and the FBI.
Prosecutors say Omar helped acquire airline tickets and helped pay for weapons. But Omar has maintained his innocence. His attorneys and family members have said he was too poor to finance terrorism, and never acted or spoke against the U.S.
Isse's testimony revealed the most detailed account to date about how the men were recruited and what happened once they arrived in Somalia.
On one occasion, Isse testified, he saw Omar hand $500 in cash to another al-Shabab recruit at a Minneapolis restaurant. Isse said the cash was "pocket money" and said Omar also gave them flashlights.
"He said, 'Good luck on the trip and if you guys need anything, call me,'" Isse testified.
Isse said he knew Omar as the janitor at Abubakar as-Saddique mosque, where Isse spent a lot of time after moving to Minnesota from Seattle in 2007. It was there where he also met other men who would eventually travel to Somalia.
Under questioning from Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty, Isse testified that someone at the mosque named Farhan began talking to him about going to Somalia for a "jihad" against Ethiopians, which many Somalis viewed as invaders.
The men began making plans to travel — meeting in private rooms at the mosque, or at restaurants and in cars. Three other men, two of whom have been identified as travelers by prosecutors, led the discussions because they knew more about traveling and had contacts in Somalia, Isse said.
Isse said he was told he had to keep the plans secret because the ideas weren't supported by the Somali community in Minneapolis.
"Did you understand you might get killed?" Docherty asked.
"Yes," Isse replied.
"Did you understand you might kill?" the prosecutor asked. Isse said that he did.
The men raised money for airline tickets by going door-to-door under the guise of raising money for a mosque, Isse said. They planned to travel in small groups to avoid detection.
Isse said he and another local Somali man left Minneapolis on Dec. 8, 2007, and flew to Dubai, where they met up with two other men who had left Minneapolis two days earlier.
The four then flew from Dubai to Hargeisa, a city in northern Somalia. Isse and one of his traveling companions then went to Mogadishu, where they met a man Isse called Samatar, who prosecutors have said is really Said Fidhin, a man who left the U.S. in 2006.
Samatar told the young men they had to pick new names and hand over their travel documents, but Isse said he didn't give up his documents at that point. "We were new to the place and we didn't trust anybody," he said. Later, he was told to give his green card and Somali passport to a woman for "security" reasons.
From Mogadishu, Isse and his friend were driven to a three-bedroom house in Marka run by a woman called "Mother Shabab." Isse said at one point there were seven Minnesotans there, including himself and Omar, who stayed for more than a week and gave him phone cards.
Since the men were from the West, they were told to buy their own AK-47s. Isse said they began calling friends in the U.S. and asking for money, and eventually got assault rifles at another safe house. One weapon arrived with Omar's name on it, Isse said.
Isse then went to another location and began helping clear trees for a training camp. He left after about a week and eventually returned to the U.S.
He was arrested at the Seattle airport in 2009, as he was trying to go to Tanzania. He testified Thursday that he'd wanted to get out of town because he had heard people in Minneapolis were being arrested.
Isse has pleaded guilty in the case and agreed to testify against Omar in exchange for a lighter sentence.
The defense is expected to cross examine Isse on Friday.
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