The photos of her dead son made a mother blanch and prompted a juror to declare he'd had enough.
Thursday, October 04, 2012
By David Hanners
Abayte Ahmed had been testifying about the November 2008 disappearance of her son, Jamal Aweys -- he went to Somalia to fight for al-Shabaab -- when a federal prosecutor showed her Government Exhibit 13, three photos of her son's remains on Wednesday, Oct. 3.
They flashed on a TV monitor briefly, but Ahmed wrenched her head quickly to the right and began to wipe away tears. She then steeled herself and faced forward again.
"Yeah, that was him," she told the jury through an interpreter.
The testimony came during the third day in the Minneapolis trial of Mahamud Said Omar, 46, accused of helping fund travels of local Somali men to fight for the militant Islamic group al-Shabaab, which seeks to rule Somalia.
Omar is charged with three counts of conspiracy and two counts of providing aid to terrorists; he allegedly provided "several hundred dollars" to men, and some of the money was allegedly used to buy two AK-47 assault rifles in Somalia.
The State Department's February 2008 designation of al-Shabaab as a "foreign terrorist organization" made it a crime to provide aid to the group.
Omar's defense lawyers say he never supported al-Shabaab. They contend the former part-time janitor and aspiring trucker possessed neither the financial nor mental wherewithal to be part of the conspirators as the government claims.
Ahmed was among three people whom prosecutors called who were related to "the travelers," as the FBI came to call the two dozen or so men who left the Twin Cities to take up arms for al-Shabaab.
After Ahmed finished her sometimes-emotional testimony, Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis called a recess. Before court resumed, he and the attorneys had a long, private conference at the bench with one of the jurors.
The man, known in court as Juror No. 29, had sought the conference after the photos were shown. After several minutes of conversation, Davis excused the man and a court security officer escorted him out.
The man's absence was not explained in court. Ten women and five men are left as jurors and alternates.
Ahmed testified that her son studied engineering at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and worked part time as a security guard, and that his disappearance surprised the family.
She said she last saw him the morning of Nov. 3, 2008; later that day, he was on a flight for Amsterdam, with an eventual destination of Somalia.
"Did you know Jamal was going to leave and you'd never see him again?" Assistant U.S. Attorney LeeAnn Bell asked her.
"No," she replied.
"Did you know he had travel plans?"
"So he just disappeared, is that right?"
"Hmm-hmm," the witness said. "Yes."
Bell asked her if her son would've had the money required to travel from the Twin Cities to Somalia. Ahmed said he wouldn't have.
She also testified that her son was an infant when the family came to the United States as refugees in 1996, five years after a coup left the East African country a lawless state.
Al-Shabaab (Arabic for "the youth") is one of the groups that emerged from the chaos. Although Somalia's constitution establishes Islam as the country's official religion, al-Shabaab seeks to establish a government based on a strict interpretation of Islam.
It waged guerrilla war against the Transitional Federal Government, or TFG, formed with United Nations support in 2004. In August, the TFG gave way to Somalia's first indigenous government since 1991.
A parliament of clan elders was appointed, and that body elected a president last month. Al-Shabaab opposes the new government; less than two weeks before Omar's trial began, a member of parliament was assassinated as he left a mosque.
Al-Shabaab claimed credit and said in a statement it would "kill all Somali MPs and officials one by one."
Ahmed told jurors that her son could not have spoken enough Somali to get by in the country he was born in.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Andrew Birrell asked her if she'd ever spoken to Omar or even seen him before seeing him sitting at the defense table.
"No," she replied. It was the same with the other two relatives who testified; although they told jurors moving stories about their loved ones' sudden and unexplained disappearances, neither knew Omar or had ever heard of him.
Among them was Hibo Ahmed, a sister of Shirwa Ahmed, 27, who died in an October 2008 suicide bombing that officials believe was part of a coordinated attack by al-Shabaab on five targets.
Under questioning by Bell, the woman said her brother had made the pilgrimage to Mecca expected of healthy Muslims in 2006 and again in 2007, but he didn't come home from the second trip.
Instead, the government says he went to Somalia, where he took up arms for al-Shabaab and died when he drove a Toyota truck loaded with explosives into a government compound in Puntland in northern Somalia.
Before she testified, both sides agreed that Ahmed's remains were buried in a grave believed to be that of the bomber. The FBI matched fingerprints and DNA from the remains to a piece of flesh found on a building after the explosion.
Hibo Ahmed said that she last spoke to her brother by phone a day or so before the bombing.
She said the next she heard of her brother was a few days later when somebody-- she didn't know who -- called her apartment and told her Shirwa was dead.
"He said, 'Are you Hawo?' -- Hawo is my nickname -- and the next thing he said is that Shirwa was dead," she told jurors. She asked how he had died.
"And what did he say?" Bell asked.
"He said he died in a martyr operation," the witness said.
She said she didn't know that her brother was in Somalia.
Under cross-examination by defense attorney Paul Dworak, Ahmed acknowledged that her brother had paid for his trip through money he had earned by working as a deliveryman, by selling his car and getting $500 from a brother.
Of the three witnesses, the closest connection prosecutors could draw to Omar came during testimony of Yonis Abdi, of Minneapolis, a brother of Abdikadir Ali Abdi, a Hopkins teen who left for Somalia in November 2008.
Abdikadir Abdi had applied for a passport and on his application, he listed "Sharif" as his emergency contact, saying it was a cousin. The government says "Sharif" is a nickname of Omar.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty asked the witness if he had a cousin named Sharif.
"No, I don't," he replied.
He also said he didn't recognize the address or the phone number listed.
Abdikadir Abdi is one of 18 men the government has charged in the exodus to Somalia; of the group, Omar is the only one to go to trial. Abdi is among eight considered fugitives, and two are believed dead.
The other seven have pleaded guilty in deals with the government, and three of them -- Abdifatah Yusuf Isse and Salam Osman Ahmed -- are expected to be called as witnesses by the government Thursday.
Isse pleaded guilty in April 2009 and has been awaiting sentencing since then. Ahmed pleaded guilty three months after Isse.
Of the seven men who entered guilty pleas, one has been sentenced. He was sentenced to three months in jail and three months of home detention after he pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI.
David Hanners can be reached at 612-338-6516.