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Somali terror 'recruiter' gets 14 years, 3 others get 3 years each

Pioneer Press
Wednesday, May 15, 2013

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In 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.

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 regret it."

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 business.

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 occupiers.

Somalia got a new government last summer.

David Hanners can be reached at 612-338-6516.

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