Pioneer PressIn a terrorism investigation spanning years and
continents, Omer Abdi Mohamed was the closest the government came to
finding the person who recruited young conscripts to fight in Somalia.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
The Minneapolis charter school volunteer helped organize small
groups of young Somali men to return to their homeland -- including as
recently as July -- to take up arms for the Islamic terrorist group
al-Shabaab, prosecutors said.
And on Tuesday, May 14, a federal judge sentenced Mohamed, 28, to
14 years in prison. The punishment comes 3-1/2 years after he was
charged and nearly a year and 10 months after he pleaded guilty to a
single count of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.
"Your Honor, I ask you for mercy. I ask you for another chance,"
he told Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis in a courtroom packed
with almost 70 supporters, who leaned on every quiet word he spoke.
Mohamed and his attorney, Peter Wold, had denied that the
defendant had assumed any type of role as a recruiter or organizer for
al-Shabaab, which has been battling Somalia's nascent government.
"In no way I or any of the young men would want to harm this
country," he told the judge. "Your honor, I made a terrible wrong. I
Beyond finding that Mohamed's crime met the statutory definition
for a "terrorism enhancement" -- namely, a harsher sentence -- and
meting out punishment, Davis said little.
But at a hearing last October, the judge left no doubt how he felt about Mohamed, calling him a "danger to the community" and ordering him jailed until his day of sentencing.
That hearing had been called because the government claimed Mohamed
had violated terms of his release by not disclosing he had a job at a
charter school or revealing he'd gotten a license to open a consulting
The government also claimed it had new evidence that Mohamed had been instrumental in helping two men travel to Somalia in July.
"It's clear the defendant was a leader in the initial exodus of
Somali youth that went to Somalia," Davis said at the time. The judge
said a "treacherous web" had been exposed.
Mohamed was among four people Davis sent to prison Tuesday in a
continuing series of sentencings stemming from Operation Rhino, so named
because Somalia is in the Horn of Africa. The probe is the FBI's
long-running investigation into the exodus of young men from the Twin
Cities to fight for al-Shabaab, which has recently merged with al-Qaida.
The other three sentenced Tuesday were all given three-year
sentences. Two of them, Abdifatah Yusuf Isse, 29, and Salah Osman Ahmed,
30, both of Minneapolis, were essentially al-Shabaab deserters.
Both had agreed to go to join al-Shabaab's fight to rid the
country of Ethiopian troops. But both realized after they arrived in
Somalia that they wanted no part of the group and they escaped the first
chance they got.
The government asked for a maximum of seven years and three
months for Isse, but the man's attorney, Paul Engh, said his client's
involvement could be reduced to four sentences: "One, I left the
country. I stayed in the country (Somalia) six days. I didn't like it.
And I left."
"Sometimes I think we make things more complex than they need to be," he told the judge.
A third man sentenced Tuesday, Ahmed Hussein Mahamud, 28, of
Westerville, Ohio, had gone door-to-door soliciting funds for some of
the "travelers," as the FBI refers to the men who traveled from the Twin
Cities to Somalia. He had claimed he was raising the money for orphans
in war-torn Somalia.
As with two defendants sentenced by Davis on Monday (one got 20
years, the other 10) defense attorneys argued that the terrorism
enhancement should not apply because the men never sought to harm the
U.S. government or Americans -- nor did they intend to influence the
governments of Ethiopia or Somalia, they claimed.
James Ostgard II, who represents Ahmed, said the law -- and the
judge's interpretation of it -- would have prevented Americans from
flying for the Lafayette Escadrille in World War I. It would have
stopped Americans from joining the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight in
the Spanish Civil War. There would have been no Eagle Squadron, the
group of American pilots who flew for the Royal Air Force against the
Nazis before the U.S. entered World War II.
The men who traveled to Somalia to join al-Shabaab were acting in
the same spirit, contended Ostgard. He said he felt there was "a
measure of virtue" in what his client had intended to do.
Davis quashed that kind of talk. "If it comes out of the
defense's mouth that they think it is noble, I think it'll add time to
their sentence," he said. As in all the other cases, he ruled that the
law in question doesn't require the target of the terrorism to be the
U.S. or its citizens.
The Rhino investigation stems from years of turmoil in Somalia.
The East African country fell into civil war in 1988 and the years since
have seen failed governments, fighting between clans, the rise of
warlords and various natural and man-made calamities.
At its zenith, al-Shabaab had about 8,000 fighters and estimated
revenues of $100 million a year while controlling the capital of
Mogadishu and much of the southern part of the country. In 2006, troops
from Ethiopia, Somalia's longtime enemy, entered the country to rout the
insurgents, and many in Somalia viewed the troops as invaders and
Somalia got a new government last summer.
David Hanners can be reached at 612-338-6516.