First-ever details of Minnesota men training with terrorists in Somalia — learning to fire weapons, building training camps — came to light in court documents released Tuesday.
One of the two Somali men indicted for providing support to those terrorists pleaded guilty months ago and has been cooperating with the FBI, according to those same documents.
Papers filed by the attorney for Abdifatah Yusuf Isse, 25, of Seattle also provide the first clue to how Isse and other young Somalis were recruited to fight, saying he was approached “at a house of worship.”
The motion provides no other details about the place of recruitment. Up to 20 Twin Cities men of Somali descent have disappeared over the past two years, and many of them worshipped or socialized at Abubakar as-Saddique, the largest Somali mosque in Minneapolis.
Farhan (Omar) Hurre, the mosque director, has consistently said that the mosque does not preach violence and didn’t play a role in the disappearances.
At least four of the missing men have died since returning to Somalia — three since early June — and community members say there are reports of other deaths.
Isse, who has family in the Twin Cities, has admitted to investigators that he trained with terrorists in Somalia, traveled and stayed in houses with Shirwa Ahmed, the Minneapolis man who blew himself up in a suicide bombing last October in northern Somalia. Isse even helped construct a terrorist training camp, according to a previously sealed federal response to motions filed by his attorney, Paul Engh.
The documents detailing Isse’s admitted involvement in terrorist training were unsealed after the first appearance in court Monday by the other man indicted on charges of supporting terrorists, Salah Osman Ahmed, 26, of Brooklyn Park.
The men are the first to be publicly charged in the sweeping probe — one of the most far-reaching U.S. counterterrorism efforts since 9/11. Special Agent E.K. Wilson said Tuesday that these initial indictments are just the beginning of an “ongoing investigation.”
Isse pleaded guilty April 17 to a single count of providing material support to terrorists.
In his motion to amend the conditions of Isse’s detention Engh writes: “Mr. Isse will not be the last defendant indicted. The individuals who recruited him to go to Somalia have been targeted for prosecution. Once charged, they will face a life sentence. Recruiting young men to blow themselves up while killing the innocent at a crowded marketplace is a definition of evil. And this recruitment happened at a house of worship.”
The motion was denied.
Engh has declined to comment on the case, other than to acknowledge that he represents Isse, citing national security rules.
Stephen L. Smith, an attorney who has represented five or six people who testified before the grand jury investigating the case, said though many of the missing men spent time at Abubakar, he does not believe anyone in a leadership position there recruited men to fight for al-Shabaab, the Somali group with links to Al-Qaida.
“There have certainly been questions along those lines,” Smith said of the grand jury investigation. “But every client I have represented has not in any way suggested there was any nefarious exposure to this kind of stuff, this type of ideology, from the mosque.”
According to documents filed by the U.S. Attorney, Isse was arrested at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Feb. 24. He said he was on his way to Tanzania to participate in an internship with his uncle.
He had previously left Minneapolis in December 2007 for Somalia, traveling as part of “an agreement with several other individuals from the Minneapolis area to travel to Somalia and fight against Ethiopian soldiers whom they believed to be occupying the country.”
Isse traveled with one Minneapolis man and met with two others in Dubai.
While in Somalia, Isse “learned that his conspiracy was affiliated with al-Shabaab,” the U.S. Attorney’s office wrote. Al-Shabaab is considered a “militant jihadist organization” by federal officials that has waged war to impose Sharia, or strict Islamic law, in Somalia.
Isse and the others lived in houses provided by al-Shabaab, trained with weapons and traveled and lived with other al-Shabaab members. One of those men was Shirwa Ahmed. Isse even spent a couple weeks helping build a training camp.
After a week or two at the camp, the U.S. Attorney said, Isse decided he did not want to stay. He and another man from Minnesota left, while other Minnesotans stayed to continue their training.
After visiting family members in Somalia, Isse returned to the U.S. in May 2008. Even after Shirwa Ahmed’s death, Isse stayed in contact with “other individuals who had knowledge of the ongoing conspiracy to recruit al-Shabaab members from among the Somali-American population in Minneapolis,” according to court papers.
Ayan Isse, Abdifatah Isse’s cousin, said the entire family was shocked to hear of his arrest. Isse, an engineering student in his home state of Washington, was “always one of the good kids,” she said. “He never smoked, he never did anything.”
The family didn’t even know Isse had been arrested until a few months ago, she said. Until then, they had frantically tried to find him.
“When he came to America, he was willing to study to become somebody. He was willing to help his family, his brothers and sisters. Whoever talked him into this stuff, it’s no good, because now he is paying the price,” Ayan Isse said.
Zakaria Maruf, one of the Somali men said to have been involved in recruiting others in Minneapolis, was killed last weekend in Mogadishu. It is not clear how he died.
Somalis who grew up with Maruf recall an angry young man who seemed to mellow in recent years after getting involved at Abubakar as-Saddique, where he sometimes volunteered at mosque conventions.
A community activist who works with Somali youth said that although Maruf was prone to fights, he “had a leadership presence where people used to follow him.”
Gandi Mohamed, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Maruf and who worships at Abubakar, said he doubts Maruf acted alone.
Mohamed said Maruf was a hothead who often picked fights he couldn’t win. Although “he did calm down and mature” in recent years, Mohamed said, Maruf lacked the “personality, intellect and temperament” to mastermind an extensive recruiting effort.
“For me to go to Somalia right now, I would need my elders to get up there and make connections for me to be safe,” he said. “For him to get there and be connected and be a leader in al-Shabaab, he’d have to have someone influential to make the connection for him.”
Staff writers Richard Meryhew and Allie Shah contributed to this report. James Walsh • 612-673-7428