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Terror trial begins for US Somali

A man who worked as a janitor at a mosque in the United States directed young Somali expatriates back to their war-torn homeland to fight, federal prosecutor tells court.

Mahamud Said Omar, who is accused of providing money and fighters to Al Shabab, a terror group at the centre of much of the violence in Somalia.
Mahamud Said Omar, who is accused of providing money and fighters to Al Shabab, a terror group at the centre of much of the violence in Somalia.

MINNEAPOLIS // A man who worked as a janitor at a mosque in the United States directed young Somali expatriates back to their war-torn homeland to fight, a federal prosecutor said in his opening statement this week.

Mahamud Said Omar, 46, faces five terror-related counts for financing and supporting Al Shabab, a US-designated terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda at the centre of much of the violence in Somalia.

Mr Omar's defence lawyer, Andrew Birrell, said that his client was a simple labourer who has struggled to adapt to life in the US. Mr Birrell said Mr Omar never planned anything against the US and lacked the financial means to fund Al Shabab.

"He has never organised anything," Mr Birrell told the jury at the trial's opening day Tuesday.

Since 2007, more than 20 young men are believed to have left Minnesota for the East African nation, presumably to take up arms with Al Shabab. The departures shook the Somali community in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which is the largest in the US.

Mr Kovats said many of the young men who returned to Somalia, including some who were as young as 17, came to the US as children as their families hoped for a safer life.

"The defendant turned them around and directed them into this pipeline - back into the violence of Somalia, Mr Kovats said.

Mr Kovats said three of the men who travelled to Somalia will testify about their experiences with Omar and Al Shabab. Mr Birrell told jurors those men were offered deals by the government to avoid life sentences, and they should not be believed.

"These men, you will see, have lied in the most terrible ways against Mr Omar," Mr Birrell said.

Mr Omar, who came to the US in 1993 and is a permanent resident, insists he is innocent of the charges, which include conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.

He could face life in prison if convicted.

Prosecutors say Mr Omar gave money to men who travelled to Somalia in 2007 and went there himself in early 2008.

In their account, Mr Omar stayed at a safe house in the city of Marka with others who had come from Minnesota - including Shirwa Ahmed, who the FBI said was "radicalised" in Minneapolis and would later become the first known US citizen to carry out a suicide bombing.

At the safe house, Mr Omar gave provisions to men and discussed training and fighting for Al Shabab, prosecutors contend. They say Mr Omar also gave fighters hundreds of dollars they spent buying AK-47 assault rifles.

Mr Birrell told jurors that Mr Omar went to Somalia to get married, and that he never spent the night at the safe house.

He said Mr Omar merely ran into some Minneapolis men while travelling in Somalia and was invited to visit.

Mr Birrell said Mr Omar did not give anyone in the house money or talk about Al Shabab or fighting.

He said his client has been sickly since he was young and has had a hard time adapting to life in America.

Eighteen men have been charged in the Minnesota case, but Mr Omar is the first to go to trial. Seven men pleaded guilty, while others are presumed to be out of the country or dead.

A congressional investigation last year put the number of Al Shabab supporters higher, estimating that more than 40 people left the US to join the terror group.

Omar returned to the US in April 2008 and, prosecutors say, continued to help Al Shabab.

He accompanied two travellers to the Minneapolis airport in August 2008.

At least initially, many of the Minnesota men appeared to have been motivated by patriotism. In late 2006, Ethiopian soldiers were brought into Somalia by its weak United Nations-backed government, and many Somalis saw that as an invasion. By fall 2007, some were holding secret meetings at Minneapolis mosques and homes, plotting ways to fight the Ethiopians, court documents said.

Mr Kovats said those secret meetings happened at an area mosque and restaurants, and that those who were not part of the plan were excluded.

"They didn't want anybody to find out and get in the way of their plan," Mr Kovats said.