AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now, a terrorism trial in the Midwest. Several years ago, nearly two dozen young Somalis from Minneapolis disappeared, only to turn up in Somalia as part of a terrorist group linked to al-Qaida. Now, a man allegedly behind the scheme is in court. The case has featured testimony from some of the men who traveled to Somalia, and who later returned. Their stories reveal new details about how they ended up in Somalia, and what it was like to be a member of a terrorist group there.
NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is at the trial in Minneapolis, and joins us now. And Dina, first, remind us - some of the background here, about this case.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, the reason this case is important is because it's about the most effective jihadi pipeline, the U.S. has ever known. It helped about two dozen young men join a terrorist group. And one of the largest communities of Somalis in the United States, is in Minnesota. Lutherans sponsored some of the first Somali families in the Twin Cities, in the late 1990s, when there was a raging civil war in Somalia. And then, others came to join them.
Starting at about the end of 2007, young Somali Americans from the Minneapolis area just started disappearing. And it turns out that they were secretly leaving to join this terrorist group, al-Shabab. We reported extensively on this when the kids first went missing several years ago, and the community was really frightened. And it took months for the FBI to figure out that these kids were leaving to join al-Shabab.
CORNISH: So who, exactly, is on trial and how does he fit in to this?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the man on trial is a 46-year-old named Mahamud Said Omar. He's a former janitor, and a handyman, at a mosque in south Minneapolis. And prosecutors are saying that he provided money and logistical help to get the young men to Somalia and to al-Shabab camps. And some of the recruits are actually testifying against him. So far, there have been 18 people implicated in the case. Seventeen of them have pleaded guilty, and Omar is the first to go on trial. So a lot of new details are coming out, as they testify. For example, this is the first time we've heard publicly from some of these young men who traveled to Somalia, joined al-Shabab and then, for various reasons, they came back.
CORNISH: So what have the young men said in court?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, three former recruits have testified. And I think some of the most surprising testimony shows just how mundane the process of getting them to Somalia, and into the ranks of al-Shabab, seemed to be. They've been testifying about, you know, meetings in pizza places and apartments around town, and getting on conference calls with members of al-Shabab in Somalia. And it wasn't really sinister. It was more like a nationalistic adventure. They were going to fight for their homeland, for Somalia.
And one of the men who testified today, said that there were a couple of young Somalis who were still in high school, who wanted to go; but they were deemed too young. They were told they could go after they turned 18. And one of the men who testified yesterday talked about what it was like to be in an al-Shabab safe house in Somalia. And he said at first, it wasn't - this was the word he used - it was really fun because they played soccer, and they went to the beach, and they hung around the safe house all day. And prosecutors showed candid photographs of these Minneapolis recruits in Somalia, to prove that they were there. And the photographs looked like vacation shots.
CORNISH: So were they actually having fun, or were they actually called on to fight?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, some of them did fight, though the men who testified had a more limited role; a couple of them said they were in a battle or two. But they said they decided that this wasn't what they thought they were signing up for, and that's why they left. Al-Shabab wasn't just about fighting Ethiopians, which is what they thought it was about. They realized that they also wanted to overthrow Somalia's government, and that's where these American recruits seemed to draw the line. One said that once he realized al-Shabab was about terrorism, he wanted to leave.
CORNISH: So when is this trial actually expected to end?
TEMPLE-RASTON: It's supposed to take a couple of weeks. I mean, so far, we've just heard the prosecution's side of the case. Omar has pleaded not guilty. And his defense is saying that these recruits who are testifying against him, will say anything because they want to get their sentences reduced.
CORNISH: Thank you, Dina.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.
CORNISH: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, in Minneapolis.
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