MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A man accused of helping send young men to Somalia to join the terror group al-Shabab told authorities he was a "team leader" and that new groups of local Somalis could have been formed to make the trip from Minnesota but the FBI "chased us out," an FBI agent testified Tuesday.
But a defense attorney for Mahamud Said Omar said that in the same series of interviews, Omar told authorities he was not a member of al-Shabab and didn't do anything wrong.
Omar, 46, is on trial on five terror-related counts in the federal government's investigation into the recruiting of more than 20 men who authorities say have left Minnesota since 2007 to join al-Shabab. The al-Qaida-linked group, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization, is at the center of much of the violence in Somalia.
Omar is accused of helping some travelers get tickets for their trips from Minnesota, home to the largest Somali population in the U.S. Prosecutors say he also stayed at an al-Shabab safe house in Merca, Somalia, and provided $1,000 for weapons.
Omar was arrested in the Netherlands in 2009. American authorities interviewed him there following his arrest, and again during another series of interviews at a Dutch prison in 2011.
Kiann VanDenover, the FBI special agent overseeing Omar's case, testified Tuesday that those interviews contained many inconsistencies. She said Omar gave authorities several different reasons for his own travel to Somalia in early 2008, saying he went there to get married, to visit family, to be treated for an illness — and to join al-Shabab.
At one point, VanDenover said, Omar claimed to be a "team leader" of al-Shabab, but then downplayed his role in a later interview. In another instance, he claimed not to know one of the travelers, but telephone records show there were 229 contacts between his phone and that subject's phone over more than three months.
Omar also told authorities he took two young men to the airport in August 2008 so they could join the terror group. "He said it was one of the greatest mistakes he made," VanDenover said. "He said he knew they were going to join al-Shabab."
VanDenover said that during the interviews, Omar "gave bits and pieces that were true. There were parts I believed and parts I did not believe."
During cross examination of VanDenover, defense attorney Andrew Birrell noted that Omar also told authorities during those interviews that he didn't want to get involved with other men who traveled to Somalia — and that he warned them to stop. Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty reminded jurors that in a prior phone call with one of the travelers, Omar said he would use that excuse if questioned.
Birrell also questioned the way Omar was treated. Dutch authorities placed a bag over Omar's head after he was arrested in the middle of the night, and he vomited in a police car. When American authorities brought him to the U.S. more than 18 months later, they also covered his eyes and placed him in a diaper, the lawyer said.
VanDenover said she had no control over Dutch arrest procedures or timing, and that Omar was transported to the U.S. by the FBI's hostage rescue team, which has its own protocols. She said when Omar was feeling ill during interviews, authorities tried to determine what was wrong.
Birrell also said information that the agents used to question Omar was based on evidence gleaned from people who seem to lie "every time they open their mouths," and he inquired about the way his client was interrogated.
"All I did with the defendant was general interviews," VanDenover said. "I never interrogated him. It was always a very easy interview as far as questions and answers. Nobody was yelling at each other."
Prosecutors are planning to formally rest their case Wednesday, and since the defense is not expected to call witnesses, closing arguments are also expected Wednesday.
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