One the eve of his federal terrorism trial, 26-year-old Somali-American Omer Abdi Mohamed pleaded guilty Monday to conspiring to murder, kidnap and maim to overthrow Somalia's government. Mohamed admitted he attended secret meetings and helped arrange transportation for other young men of Somali origin living in the northern U.S. state of Minnesota to join the terrorist group al-Shabab. Mohamed is one of six people of Somali descent to plead guilty in Minnesota as part of a wide federal investigation. Mohamed’s plea deal leaves many questions unanswered in Minnesota’s large Somali-American community.
Leaving a life of relative comfort and security in Minnesota to wage war and terror in Somalia, a country many fled years ago, is a concept that is still hard for Somali-American community activist Nimco Ahmed to understand.
“Our parents took us from those wars to actually come here to have a better life," said Ahmed. "And I’m surprised that those young men would go back to fight a war that is not theirs and to go to a place where they don’t have family or anyone that they knew.”
But Special Agent E.K. Wilson of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, or FBI, says that is what at least 21 Somali-American men have done since 2007.
“There are specific people that we are looking at for specific reasons, and that is supporting al-Shabab - a designated foreign terrorist organization," said Wilson. "And it’s a very focused case.”
Wilson and his team of agents in Minnesota have been working much of the past four years to track down those who left the United States to join al-Shabab and those who supported the terror group. Their work has led to several arrests, including that of Omer Mohamed. Mohamed would have been the first defendant to go to trial in the case. Many analysts hoped that the court proceedings would shed light on parts of the case that trouble many in Minnesota's Somali-American community, including Nimco Ahmed.
AHMED: “You know, how did this happen? Where were the meetings held? Where did the money come from that they used to travel? And a lot of those questions weren’t actually answered in this trial. But this is an issue that actually divided a lot of our community members here, for like who was responsible, who did it? There was a lot of pointing fingers.”
ISLAM: “It’s been really hard on the community to understand why this is happening.”
Taneeza Islam is the Civil Rights Director for the Minnesota Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations:
“I also know that there are various community members who are sort of in denial that you know these trials are still taking place or that people have been charged with different things," she said. "I know a lot of people were looking for this trial to give them some answers. So with this plea deal, obviously, people will have to wait more to understand more what exactly happened.”
FBI Special Agent E.K. Wilson says he understands the frustration and the need by some in the community to hold someone accountable.
“Without being able to categorize in too much detail any one of these individuals, there does seem to be desire for some sort of label, to be able to assign a label to Omer [Abdi Mohamed] or some of these other individuals, looking for this mastermind," said Wilson. "That’s simply something that we’re not going to be able to do at this point.”
Federal prosecutors say Omer Abdi Mohamed never traveled to Somalia, and that role was to raise money and facilitate travel for those who wanted to join al-Shabab.
At least three men who left the United States for Somalia have returned to Minnesota. Two have pleaded guilty to terrorism charges and await sentencing; one is still in custody. At least two other men from Minnesota have died in suicide attacks in Somalia.
Mohamed’s plea deal reduces the sentence he would have received if he had been found guilty at a trial.
The FBI's E.K. Wilson says he hopes Mohamed’s case will encourage others who have left the United States for Somalia to return and account for their actions.
“If those individuals in Somalia still are listening to this, and if they’re having second thoughts, obviously we can’t make any guarantees or promises," he said. "But we would encourage them wholeheartedly to make an effort to make their way to the nearest U.S. diplomatic establishment, to make contact there. That would be the surest and quickest way to ensure a safe return to the United States.”
Two women of Somali origin from Rochester, Minnesota are scheduled to be the next to face terrorism conspiracy charges in federal court. They are accused of sending money to al-Shabab. They have entered pleas of not guilty. Their trial begins on October 3.