MINNEAPOLIS: The trial of a Minneapolis man convicted in a conspiracy to send young men from Minnesota to the terrorist group al-Shabab in Somalia has provided the most detailed look yet into what has been called one of the largest investigations into the recruitment of U.S. fighters to a foreign terrorist organization.
Mahamud Said Omar, 46, was convicted Thursday on five terrorism-related counts, including one that could land him in prison for life. Authorities say he provided money for al-Shabab weapons and helped some young recruits get plane tickets for Somalia - pushing them toward the terror group after they were indoctrinated in Minneapolis.
Omar 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. One of his defense attorneys, Jon Hopeman, said afterward that Omar will appeal.
After the verdict, B. Todd Jones, the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, said the government values religious and political freedoms, but there are some lines that can't be crossed.
"One of those lines is, you cannot provide material support to a designated terrorist organization such as al-Shabab," Jones said. "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 the recruitment of more than 20 men who authorities say have left Minnesota since 2007 to join al-Shabab, a U.S.-designated terrorist group linked to al-Qaida.
From secret meetings to plans to travel in small groups to avoid detection, trial testimony provided insight into 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.
Jones said that after years of exhaustive work, authorities were relieved to put the information before the public as the "eyes of the world" were focused on the trial. But, he said, the investigation is not over, and the government is taking reports that more men have departed for Somalia in recent months "very seriously."
"We always have to remain vigilant," Jones said. "Some folks are still fugitives and some folks lost their lives in the Horn of Africa, and there are still related ongoing investigations. This isn't the end of this kind of activity."
Omar was among 18 men charged in the investigation and the first to go to trial. Seven other defendants have pleaded guilty. Of the travelers, six are confirmed dead by the FBI and family members, while others are presumed to be dead or in Somalia.
"Our case continues in earnest, and every single day that we come to work, we continue to look at individuals potentially responsible for volunteering to travel, to train, to fight overseas on behalf of al-Shabab, or to become operatives," said E.K. Wilson, the FBI supervisory special agent overseeing the investigation.
And while authorities don't have any specific intelligence that al-Shabab will send recruits back to the U.S. to launch an attack here, he said authorities are constantly on the lookout for that possibility, because of the group's allegiance to al-Qaida.
Wilson said when looking at the sheer number of people recruited from one area, this case, dubbed Operation Rhino, represents one of the largest attempts to recruit U.S. fighters for a foreign terrorist organization. Minnesota has the largest Somali population in the United States.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty 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," he said Thursday.