MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A Minneapolis man accused of helping send young men through a terrorist pipeline from Minnesota to Somalia was convicted Thursday on all five terrorism-related charges he faced, including one that could land him in prison for life.
The jury returned its verdict against Mahamud Said Omar after deliberating for about eight hours over two days. Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis has not set a sentencing date.
Omar, 46, nodded quietly as an interpreter gave him the news. As he was being led from the courtroom, he held his hands up over his head and smiled at his brothers and other supporters.
His brothers declined comment after the verdict. But one of his defense attorneys, Jon Hopeman, said Omar will appeal. Hopeman said he has a list of issues he might raise on appeal, including his claim that prosecutors did not disclose all of Omar's phone calls that were secretly recorded by the FBI.
B. Todd Jones, the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, was pleased with the verdict.
"There are some lines that you just cannot cross," Jones said. "One of those lines is, you cannot provide material support to a designated terrorist organization such as al-Shabab. That message should be crystal clear. If you choose to do that, there are some serious ramifications of that decision."
Omar, a mosque janitor, was the first man to stand trial in the government's investigation into what it says was the recruitment of more than 20 men who have left Minnesota since 2007 to join al-Shabab, a U.S.-designated terrorist group linked to al-Qaida. Al-Shabab has been fight the fledgling U.N.-backed government in Somalia, which was backed by troops from neighboring Ethiopia, who were seen by some Somalis as an invading force.
Prosecutors said the investigation is ongoing. They would not elaborate.
Prosecutors said during the trial that Omar helped some recruits from Minnesota's Somali community, which is the largest in the U.S., buy plane tickets to Somalia and gave others $1,000 to buy weapons while they were staying in an al-Shabab safe house. Prosecutors said he also went to that safe house himself and stayed there about a week.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty, one of the prosecutors who tried the case, said funneling young men to the Horn of Africa, where some lost their lives and some took the lives of others, cannot be tolerated.
"We'll be very pleased if today's verdict plays any part in bringing that kind of behavior to a stop, because it is the kind of thing that just cannot go on in this community," Docherty said Thursday.
During closing arguments Wednesday, Docherty told jurors that Omar moved the young men as "cannon fodder" through a pipeline to al-Shabab.
The FBI agent overseeing Omar's case, Kiann VanDenover, testified that at one point in questioning, Omar claimed to be a "team leader" for the terror group.
Omar has denied the allegations. One of his attorneys, Andrew Birrell, portrayed him in closing arguments as a "frightened, little man" who has struggled to adapt to life in the U.S. and who lacks the skills and know-how to organize anything. Birrell said the government's case was based on the corrupt testimony of al-Shabab recruits who repeatedly lied and who testified only because their plea deals required it.
Trial testimony provided insights into the long-running investigation, including how the young men were recruited and what happened when they got to Somalia and joined al-Shabab, which is blamed for much of the violence in the East African country.
Omar was among 18 men charged in the Minnesota case. Seven have pleaded guilty, while others are presumed to be out of the country. At least six of the men who traveled to Somalia from Minnesota have died, with more presumed dead, according to family members and the FBI.
"This case right here is not closure on the phenomenon of al-Shabab and it's not closure on our vigilance with making sure that those who cross that line are scrutinized appropriately," Jones said.
He said the verdict provides some justice to those affected by the tragedy of men being recruited from their families. He said the government is taking "very seriously" reports that more men recently have departed for Somalia.
"What I would ask at this juncture is that everybody continue to work together to stop this from happening," he said.
Omar Jamal, a community advocate who has acted as a spokesman for the family, said the evidence revealed in court showed how some people in Minneapolis had deep ties to the terror group in Somalia.
"It was very clear there are people behind this operation who have been misleading and feeding these youth religious extremism and nationalism," Jamal said. "They did it in a very meticulous, smart way. And hopefully this will not be the end of this investigation."
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