- Associated Press - Sunday, September 30, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS — A Minnesota man accused of helping to recruit and finance U.S. fighters for an overseas terrorist group heads to trial Monday in a case that’s expected to show how some young Somali expatriates in Minneapolis were persuaded to risk their lives for insurgents back home.

Mahamud Said Omar, 46, faces five terrorism-related counts as part of a much broader investigation into recruiting by al-Shabab, designated by the U.S. as a terrorist group that is linked to al Qaeda and that lies at the center of much of the violence in Somalia.

Since 2007, more than 20 young men are thought to have left Minnesota for the East African nation, presumably to take up arms with al-Shabab. The departures shook the Somali community in Minnesota, the largest in the United States.

While prosecutors don’t consider Mr. Omar a mastermind in the Minneapolis pipeline, they say that he was far more than a bit player: They say he encouraged young men to fight, helped some get tickets for travel to Somalia and helped pay for weapons.

“We believe it’s a very important case because it will be the government’s only opportunity, to date, to explain to the public what has been going on in the Somali community, and how these recruiters have been going after these young men,” said U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Jeanne Cooney. “I think it will go a long way in explaining how these cases tie together.”

Mr. Omar, who came to the U.S. 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.

“He maintains that he has never lifted a hand or spoken a word against the interests of the United States, and that’s what the evidence will show,” said Jon Hopeman, one of his attorneys. “He also has a great respect for the country that took him in.”

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.

Prosecutors say Mr. Omar gave money to men who traveled 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 other Minnesotans — including Shirwa Ahmed, who the FBI said was radicalized in Minneapolis and would later become the first known U.S. citizen to carry out a suicide bombing.

At the safe house, prosecutors say, Mr. Omar gave provisions to men and discussed training and fighting for al-Shabab. He also is accused of giving hundreds of dollars to fighters so they could buy AK-47 assault rifles.

Mr. Omar returned to the U.S. in April 2008 and, prosecutors say, continued to help al-Shabab. He accompanied two travelers to the Minneapolis airport in August 2008.

That November — days after Ahmed’s suicide bombing — Mr. Omar followed the directions of a man in Somalia and helped a group of six men buy airline tickets, accompanied them to the travel agency and gave one traveler money, prosecutors said.

His brothers, Mohamed Osman and Abdullahi Said Omar, have described their brother as shy and easily led, lacking the brains to be a terrorist and the money to buy weapons. They say his trip to Somalia in early 2008 was to get married and that he went overseas in November of that year to make the hajj pilgrimage.

Prosecutors also intend to play recordings of phone calls, in which Mr. Omar is accused of talking about an “uproar” in Minneapolis, plans for some men to leave the city and the fighting overseas. At least two men who traveled to Somalia and spent time with al-Shabab are also expected to testify.

Mr. Omar’s attorneys would not talk about defense strategies. They’ve ruled out mental disease or insanity as a defense, but may ask witnesses to talk about Mr. Omar’s state of mind.