For nearly three weeks, the benches at the back of a federal courtroom in Minneapolis were filled with local Somalis. The man on trial, Mahamud Said Omar, was accused of conspiring to help a terrorist group recruit some two dozen young Minnesota men to fight a holy war in Somalia.
It took a federal jury just eight hours to convict him of all of the five terrorism charges leveled against him, but the verdict is only the beginning for the Somali community in the Twin Cities.
As the testimony unfolded day after day, women in bright African prints and colorful headscarves sat next to 20-somethings in jeans and purple Minnesota Vikings sweatshirts. And they heard, for the first time, about a jihadi pipeline that funneled some of their sons and nephews and brothers from the streets of Minneapolis to battlefields outside of Mogadishu to fight with a terrorist group called al-Shabab.
Day in and day out, a man named Abdi Rizak Bihi sat in the back row by the door. His nephew was a 17-year-old named Burhan Hassan. He was one of the young Minnesotans who went to Somalia — and one of six of them to die there.
As Bihi sees it, Mahamud Said Omar was responsible, at least in part, for Burhan's death.
"It is really difficult for us to picture him involved in such a mess that created pain for so many families," Bihi said.
'Everything He Had Was Gone'
I first met Bihi at the Brian Coyle recreation center in Minneapolis four years ago. He was a mentor and coach to a roster of young Somalis in the Twin Cities. He had an office just off the center's basketball courts. A conversation with Bihi was punctuated by phone calls and questions from young men who were looking to him for advice.
Bihi's nephew, Burhan, had gone missing just weeks before I arrived. He was just 17 and mysteriously disappeared on Election Night in November 2008. Burhan had told his mother he was going out with some friends. When he didn't come home, his mother called Bihi. She was worried.
"We kept telling her that Burhan was now a young adult and he can stay up and get involved with things like the election and maybe getting the vote out," Bihi recalled. "Don't worry, I told her, he's not a baby anymore."
The phone rang in Bihi's apartment around 1 a.m. that morning. His sister had gone into Burhan's room. "And everything he had was gone," Bihi said.
Burhan wasn't the first young Somali from the Twin Cities to go missing. Over the course of several years, dozens of young men would follow his same path.
It took some time for the FBI to confirm that a jihadi pipeline had appeared in the Twin Cities. It was sending young men to the Horn of Africa — recruiting them from Minneapolis' enormous Somali community, helping them get the money together for plane tickets, and then flying them to Mogadishu where they were met by members of al-Shabab. The U.S. government has designated al-Shabab as a terrorist group.
From Minneapolis To Mogadishu
As it turns out, Omar, the man convicted Thursday, appeared to play a key role.
Three young Minnesotans, who had travel to Somalia, fought with al-Shabab and eventually returned to the U.S., testified against him. They provided a rare look into the operation. They talked about having secret meetings in restaurants around Minneapolis to plan the trip.
In one early meeting, they gathered in the private dining room of a pizza place, sat in a circle on the floor and listened to a call from an al-Shabab member in Somalia. He was on a speaker phone.
"He was on the phone saying they were doing a great job," said Kamal Said Hassan, 27. "Basically he was advertising for us what was going on there."
Once they arrived in Mogadishu, the young men were taken to an al-Shabab safe house in Merca, south of Somalia's capital. They said Omar met them there and stayed for several days. They testified that Omar provided money for expenses to the woman who ran the safe house and helped the young men buy guns.
After listening to the court testimony, Bihi said Omar's role in the scheme was hard to fathom for two reasons: first, Omar was known in the community as the affable janitor at a local mosque, and second, the defendant was Bihi's neighbor.
Mahamud Said Omar lived on the 23rd Floor of a housing complex in East Minneapolis known as the Towers. Bihi, Burhan's uncle, lived just a couple floors below.
He remembered riding the elevator with Omar the morning Burhan went missing. He recalled Omar even asking how Burhan was doing. There was small talk, and then they parted. Bihi said the memory was painful.
"A neighbor who lived in the same building with you and was saying, 'Hi, how are the kids?'" he said. "At the same time he was involved in taking my nephew and other kids."
Easier If It Had Been A Stranger
The "other kids," according to the FBI, ranged in age from 17 to their mid-20s. They first began leaving Minneapolis in late 2007, sneaking away in twos and threes, flying to Amsterdam or Dubai and then connecting to Mogadishu.
It took months to discover that they were joining al-Shabab, the group with ties to al-Qaida. It was years before the FBI began to zero in on the man convicted Thursday. Omar was extradited for trial from the Netherlands and his arrest rocked the community.
Burhan's uncle said it would have been easier if the man helping recruit their kids was a stranger.
"It is not part of our culture where a neighbor is nice to you and saying hi to you, the same as he has done for several years, every morning, and then you come to find out that morning he was taking your loved one to the airport to join al-Shabab," Bihi said.
The story of Bihi's nephew Burhan ended badly. He died outside Mogadishu in 2009. He apparently was shot on June 5 — the very day he would have graduated from Edison High School in Minneapolis.
Bihi said Omar's conviction is only the beginning.
"The community and us families, we believe this is not the end," said Bihi.
And he may be right. Last month, a University of Minnesota student named Omar Farah went missing. His mom received a phone call from Merca, Somalia, a couple of weeks ago. He told her he was in Somalia, fighting for al-Shabab.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now an important terrorism verdict in this country. The case involves what's been called a jihadi pipeline. Five years ago, young Somali-Americans living in Minneapolis started disappearing. They later turned up in Somalia, recruited by a militia with ties to al-Qaida. Yesterday, a jury in Minneapolis found a local man guilty in the case.
And as NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, Somalis in Minneapolis are struggling to understand how a man they thought they knew was behind the scheme that stole their children.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: For three weeks, the benches at the back of a federal courtroom in Minneapolis were filled with Somalis. Women in bright African prints and colorful headscarves sat next to 20-somethings in jeans and purple Minnesota Vikings sweatshirts. And nearly every day in a seat in the back row by the door sat a man named Abdirizak Bihi. His nephew went to Somalia to fight four years ago and he died there. And as Bihi sees it, the defendant, a man named Mahamud Said Omar, played a part in the death of his nephew.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)
TEMPLE-RASTON: I first met Abdi Bihi at a rec center in east Minneapolis four years ago, in his office just off the center's basketball court. Bihi's nephew had gone missing just weeks before. The boy's name was Burhan Hasan and he was just 17. It was November 2008, election night, and Burhan told his mother he was going out with his friends. When he didn't come home, the boy's mother began calling around frantically, trying to find him. This is the way his uncle, Bihi, described the disappearance to me four years ago when he still didn't know where Burhan was.
ABDIRIZAK BIHI: My sister called me and said Burhan's missing. Then one in the morning she called me and I was already too sleepy. In the morning we talked and she went to his room. Everything he had was gone.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Burhan wasn't the only one to go missing. Over the course of several years, some two dozen young men would also disappear. The FBI later discovered that a jihadi pipeline was funneling the young men to a terrorist group, a Somali militia linked to al-Qaida. The man convicted yesterday played a key role. He gave the recruits money and introduced them to top leaders of the terrorist group.
And as you listen to the court testimony, Bihi said that the defendant's role was hard to accept - hard for two reasons. First, because Mahamud Said Omar was known in the community as the affable janitor at a local mosque. And second...
BIHI: Because Omar was my neighbor.
TEMPLE-RASTON: His neighbor. Mahamud Said Omar lived on the 23rd floor of a complex in east Minneapolis known as the Towers. Bihi, Burhan's uncle, lived just a couple of floors below. He rode in the elevator with Omar the morning Burhan went missing. Omar even asked how Burhan was doing. There was small talk, and then they parted.
BIHI: And a neighbor who lived in the same building with you that was saying that morning, hi and how are the kids and the family, and asking you - greeting you all these nice ways in the morning, in the elevator, at the same time that he was involved, taking my nephew and other kids.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The other kids first began leaving Minneapolis in late 2007. They left in twos and threes, flying to Amsterdam or Dubai and then connecting to Mogadishu. It took months to discover that they were joining al-Shabab, the group with ties to al-Qaida. It took a couple of years for the FBI to begin zeroing in on the man convicted yesterday. The arrest rocked the community. Burhan's uncle said it would have been easier if it was a stranger.
BIHI: It's not part of our culture where a neighbor is nice to you and saying hi to you and the same things he did probably the last several years, every morning, and coming to find out that that particular morning he was taking your loved ones to the airport to join al-Shabab.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The story of Bihi's nephew ends badly. Burhan Hasan died outside of Mogadishu in June 2009. He apparently was shot on June 5th, the very day he would have graduated from Edison High School in Minneapolis.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.