Opening statements began Tuesday in the trial of Mahamud Said Omar, the Minnesota man accused of sending money and recruiting young fighters to a terrorist group in Somalia.
Omar is facing five terror-related federal charges. Prosecutors say he recruited young Somali men from Minneapolis to leave the country and fight for al-Shabaab, a group linked to al-Qaida.
Omar is also accused of providing travel money, airline tickets and weapons.
In their opening statements, prosecutors said Omar, a janitor at a local mosque, was heavily involved in the recruitment of 18 Somali men, some as young as 17. Prosecutors say one of those men -- Shirwah Ahmed -- later became the first American suicide bomber.
Prosecutors laid out the connections on Tuesday, citing travel itineraries, secret meetings at Abubakar as-Saddique mosque in south Minneapolis and rendezvous at cafes and a Somali mall along Lake Street.
Somali community leader Abdi Bihi was Omar's neighbor, and he said he remembers recruits going door to door to raise money for assault weapons under the guise of charity.
"It's difficult in our culture to have a neighbor like that," he said. "It's scary."
Bihi's nephew, Burhan Hassan, was one of the young men who was recruited when he was only 17. Now, his uncle believes he was killed by al-Shabaab when he refused to fight inside a country he barely remembered.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Kovats said three men who traveled to Somalia will testify about their experiences with Omar and al-Shabaab during the trial, which is expected to last between four and six weeks.
However, the question hanging over the courtroom seems to be whether the janitor who made $3 an hour was the puppet master or if someone else was pulling the strings.
Defense attorney Andrew Birrell contends that Omar is poorly educated and is not capable of pulling off the operation he is accused of. In his opening statement, he also highlighted that the government isn't claiming that Omar ever spoke or acted against the United States.
Since 2008, Minneapolis has been the hub of a federal investigation into the recruiting and financing of Americans to fight with al-Shabaab in Somalia. Since 2007, at least 21 young men have left Minnesota to fight in Somalia, including four who have been confirmed dead by family members or authorities.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
KDFW FOX 4
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