The mother of a young Somali man who died after leaving Minnesota to fight with al-Shabab openly wept when shown photos of his body Wednesday during the trial of a man accused of directing young expatriates to join the terror group in Somalia.
Her testimony came as prosecutors began using family stories and travel records to build their case against Mahamud Said Omar, who is charged with five terror-related counts including conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. He has pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors allege that since 2007, more than 20 young men have left Minnesota for the war-torn East African nation to take up arms with al-Shabab, a U.S.-designated terror group linked to al-Qaida. Prosecutors say the men secretly met in a mosque, cars and restaurants to plan their trips.
Omar, 46, is accused of assisting some men with travel plans and providing money for weapons.
Among those men was Sheikh Bana, investigators say. He left Minneapolis in November 2008, and died in Somalia the following July.
His mother, Abayte Ahmed, quickly turned her head away and began crying when asked to look at graphic photos that appeared to show her son with a gunshot wound to his head.
“Yes, that was him,” she said through tears.
Testifying through an interpreter, she said she had no idea her son planned to leave Minnesota, which is home to the largest Somali population in the U.S. She said he called her from Somalia about eight days after he left.
“He said, ‘Mom, it’s Jamal speaking and I am in Somalia,” Ahmed said. “I kept saying, ‘When are you going to come back? When are you going to come back?’”
While prosecutors didn’t connect Omar directly to her son Wednesday, they have said in case documents that Omar accompanied Sheikh Bana to a travel agency to get his ticket.
Investigators also say Omar went to Somalia himself and stayed at an al-Shabab safe house with Shirwa Ahmed, who left Minneapolis in 2007 and became the first known American citizen to carry out a suicide bombing in a series of co-ordinated attacks in Somalia on Oct. 29, 2008.
His sister, Hibo Ahmed, also testified Wednesday through an interpreter, saying her brother never returned after making the Haaj pilgrimage in 2007. She believed he had stayed overseas to study, and she last spoke to her brother just two days before the suicide attack.
“He didn’t sound right,” she said through an interpreter. A few days later, she said, a man called her and said her brother died in a “martyr operation.”
On cross examination, defence attorney Paul Dworak pointed out inconsistencies in Ahmed’s stories. Dworak said that from the start, Ahmed had claimed her brother called her on Oct. 20, 2008 — not Oct. 27 — and only changed the date in 2011, after multiple interviews with the FBI.
Another government witness, Yonis Abdi, said his brother travelled to Somalia and never returned. He said he last saw his brother, Abdikadir Ali Abdi, on Nov. 2, 2008, noting that his brother was 17 when he left — and no one in his family has heard from him since.
Yonis Abdi said his brother had a passport but that it was still at his mother’s house in Hopkins, a Minneapolis suburb.
While questioning the witnesses, Assistant U.S. Attorney LeeAnn Bell displayed passport applications that Sheikh Bana and Abdikadir Ali Abdi had filled out.
Both men listed the same address as a mailing address for their passport — but their relatives said their families never lived at that address. Abdi’s application also listed an emergency contact as a cousin named “Sharif,” but his brother testified he doesn’t have a cousin by that name.
Court documents show that Omar frequently goes by the name Sharif.
Dworak, the defence attorney, asked Abdi if he often went to the Somali mall or prayed with his brother. Abdi said they prayed together.
“In all that time, you never saw Abdikadir with my client did you?” Dworak asked.
“No,” Abdi replied.
Meanwhile, an FBI affidavit obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press shows that six of the men who investigators believe left Minneapolis for Somalia have been confirmed dead.
The AP has been reporting that four men had been confirmed dead while others were presumed dead, based on information from relatives and the FBI. But an affidavit filed by an FBI special agent in late August increases the number of confirmed dead to six.
The affidavit also says some of the Minnesota travelers are now in leadership positions or hold significant duties within al-Shabab.