Man had frequent calls with Somali travelers

Man is on trial on five terror-related counts

By Amy Forliti
Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A Minnesota man accused of helping supply fighters to a terror group in Somalia started laughing during questioning last year when authorities played recordings of phone calls in which he spoke about al-Shabab, then later told an interpreter: “They got me,” an FBI agent testified Monday.

Mahamud Said Omar, 46, is on trial on five terror-related counts that accuse him of helping send fighters and money to al-Shabab. The case is part of the government’s investigation into recruitment and travels of more than 20 young men who authorities say have left Minnesota since 2007 to join the al-Qaida-linked terror group. Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the U.S.

Kiann VanDenover, the FBI special agent overseeing Omar’s case, said authorities began investigating Omar after his phone number showed up on phone calls that the FBI intercepted in early November 2008. The calls were intercepted as the FBI was investigating the disappearances of a handful of young Somali men who were reported missing by their parents.

The FBI opened its investigation into Omar on Nov. 25, 2008, the same day Omar left Minneapolis to make the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. VanDenover said she was waiting at the Minneapolis airport for Omar to return on Christmas Eve, but he never showed up. His traveling companions said he was last seen at the airport in Amsterdam.

Federal authorities in Minnesota charged Omar, and he was arrested on Nov. 8, 2009, in the Netherlands, where he was seeking political asylum. He was extradited to the United States last year.

VanDenover, who interviewed Omar in a prison in the Netherlands in May and June of 2011, said he appeared agitated and cried twice during those interviews. When the FBI played recordings of the intercepted phone calls, in which prosecutors say he tells one man how to get a visa and the best way to travel to Somalia, Omar laughed. When asked about his reaction, VanDenover said Omar responded: “Nobody in their right mind would talk about those things.”

He said Omar later spoke to the interpreter about the evidence and said: “They got me.”

Another FBI special agent, Casey Villarreal, testified that Omar spoke frequently with some of the travelers before they departed Minneapolis. Between Aug. 6, 2008 and Nov. 25, 2008, Omar had 420 contacts — either phone calls or texts — with six of the men who traveled to Somalia that fall, Villarreal said.

The content of the contacts wasn’t analyzed, and defense attorney Paul Dworak noted on cross examination that there is no way to know if the person associated with the number was the one who actually received the call.

But Villarreall testified the number of contacts with the travelers spiked on Oct. 30, 2008, the day after a Minneapolis man — Shirwa Ahmed — carried out a suicide bombing in Somalia. Thirty-seven contacts were recorded on that day between Omar and the other men, she testified. In addition, the number of contacts with some of the men increased right before their departures.

Prosecutors say Omar helped the men who left in 2008 get tickets for travel to Somalia, accompanying them to the travel agency, and was at a farewell dinner for some before they left. Omar is also accused of traveling to Somalia himself in 2007, and giving men at an al-Shabab safe house $1,000 for AK-47 assault rifles.

Omar has said he is innocent. Defense attorneys are expected to cross-examine VanDenover on Tuesday.

His trial is in his third week.

Over the weekend, prosecutors filed documents saying they have recorded phone calls in which two of Omar’s brothers spoke to him while he was in jail and directed him to falsely testify.

One brother allegedly told Omar to say he went to visit an uncle in Mecca and only went to the al-Shabab safe house because he was held at gunpoint. In another call, the other brother allegedly told Omar to say he went to visit a sick uncle, then got married and returned. Prosecutors say the two brothers also coached Omar to falsely indicate he didn’t understand the Somali language.

The brothers, who are on a list of potential witnesses, have said Omar doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to be a terrorist.

“The family will leave this to the judicial system to sort all this out,” said Omar Jamal, a Somali community leader who is serving as the family’s spokesman. “The jury will make the verdict and this case will take its course.”