MINNEAPOLIS — Two men who left Minnesota to join al-Shabab in Somalia were sentenced Tuesday to three years in federal prison, while a man they characterized as a local leader in efforts to recruit them to the terrorist group was sentenced to 12 years.
They were among six men sentenced this week for their roles in the government's long-running investigation into the travels of more than 20 young men who left Minnesota to join the al-Qaida-linked group in Somalia – a phenomenon that has been called one of the largest efforts to recruit U.S. fighters into a foreign terrorist group.
Abdifatah Yusuf Isse, 29, and Salah Osman Ahmed, 30, both left Minnesota and traveled to Somalia in 2007. They both spent about a week in an al-Shabab training camp before they said they realized what the group was all about and escaped.
The government recommended they receive less than the maximum sentence of 15 years in prison because they cooperated. Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis went even lower than prosecutors recommended, sentencing them to three years.
The timing of their departure from al-Shabab was not lost on Davis, who a day earlier gave a 10-year sentence to a man who stayed in the camp longer and participated in an ambush.
"I'm going to take a chance on you," Davis told Isse. "You devised a scheme to get away. That told me a lot about you. ... If you had been involved in the ambush, you'd be doing a lot of time.
"You've got a lot to live up to now," the judge added. "If I'm wrong about you, it's on my head."
As part of their cooperation, Isse and Ahmed testified in the recent trial of another defendant. In that trial, they characterized Omer Abdi Mohamed as a leader in recruitment efforts, saying he used the Quran to convince them they were doing the right thing.
Davis sentenced Mohamed to 12 years on Tuesday, without providing a reason. But after hearing that witness testimony about Mohamed last October, and learning that Mohamed was volunteering at a school, Davis called Mohamed "a danger to the community."
In his guilty plea in 2011, Mohamed admitted he attended secret meetings and helped recruits get plane tickets – even providing a false itinerary for one traveler – but he never traveled to Somalia himself. He faced a maximum of 15 years, but the government recommended slightly less because he cooperated.
Mohamed's attorney, Peter Wold, was stunned by the sentence.
"I'm distraught," he said afterward, adding he plans to appeal.
Wold told Davis during the hearing that another man, not Mohamed, was the real ringleader and that the travelers were not motivated by the Quran, but instead went to fight Ethiopian troops.
Many Somalis viewed the Ethiopians as invaders in their homeland.
Wold said after Mohamed learned the truth about al-Shabab, he distanced himself from the group's activity.
Mohamed asked Davis for mercy, and said he would never harm the U.S.
The courtroom was packed with dozens of Mohamed supporters. Wold told the judge about 200 Somali community members wrote letters to the court on his client's behalf, calling Mohamed respectful, kind and helpful.
"I have a very strong community that knows my heart," Mohamed said.
An Ohio man who admitted that he helped raise money so others could travel from Minnesota to Somalia was also sentenced Tuesday. Ahmed Hussein Mahamud, who lived in Minnesota until moving to Ohio in 2011, received three years in prison on one terror-related count.
His attorney, Rick Mattox, said his client was a "target of the conspiracy, a would-be traveler" who didn't go to Somalia.
Three more people face sentencing later this week in this case and in a case on terror financing.
Davis, who has overseen these cases for years, said he still struggles to understand what would make young men from good families, who came to Minnesota as refugees, choose to return to violence.
"We have to figure out what's going on and try to make sure this never happens again," he said.
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