A few years back, we wrote about Roosevelt High School graduate Abdifatah Yusuf Isse, a Somali immigrant who had moved to Minneapolis and gotten involved with a group of young men returning to their homeland to support the terrorist organization al-Shabaab. The case raised fears of a network of homegrown terrorists, including possibly in Seattle, home to one of the country's largest Somali communities.
*See also: A Mystery of Violence
One of 17 men charged by the government with aiding al-Shabaab, Isse agreed to a plea bargain that committed him to cooperating with the feds. Now, he is making good on that promise.
Last week, Isse testified in the trial of former janitor Mahamud Said Omar, who is accused of helping to organize the trips back to Somalia taken by many of these men. Isse told the court that Omar had given him and another young immigrant $500 in "pocket money" to take with them to Somalia.
Isse also offered a first-hand glimpse of what that experience was like. He said he arrived at an al-Shabaab training site to find nothing but trees and bare ground, according to MPR News and other reports. His job was to clear the trees. He slept on the ground at night--there were no tents--and ate beans and rice twice a day.
He said he was unhappy but felt trapped because he had been asked to give up his travel documents for "security" reasons. From MPR News:
Isse found his ticket out when his friend, Salah Osman Ahmed of New Brighton, broke into a rash. Ahmed received permission from the camp's leader to seek medical treatment in the city of Kismayo, and Isse was allowed to accompany him. The two Minnesotans had been at the camp only for about a week.
"I can't leave my friend alone," Isse recalled telling the camp leader.
That account corresponds with what Isse's mother and brother told Seattle Weekly when we interviewed them inn their West Seattle home. Mother Amina Ali added that Isse, who had called her from Somali, was terrified by the hyenas he heard at night and the snakes he saw around him at the al-Shabaab campsite. He hadn't been to Somalia since he was 8--a big reason he was lured back, his brother Hussein told SW. "He just wanted to experience it--to smell it, to feel it," Hussein said.
At the same time, Isse made clear on the witness stand that he intended to fight U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops, who had entered Somalia to battle a radical Islamic coalition that had seized power, igniting historic tensions between Ethiopians and Somalis. From AP:
"Did you understand you might get killed?" [Assistant U.S. Attorney John] Docherty asked.
"Yes," Isse replied.
"Did you understand you might kill?" the prosecutor asked. Isse said that he did.
Yet, what's instructive about Isse's testimony is his implication that this mission was not broadly supported in the local Ethiopian community. Isse said that he and his cohorts met secretly because they were worried their parents might find out what they were planning. When they raised funds for their trip to Somalia, they did so deceptively, pretending they were raising money for a local mosque.
Isse said his own parents had told him nothing about the historic conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia. Indeed, he said that prior to coming to Minneapolis and falling in with a radical crowd, the onetime economics student at Eastern Washington University didn't even know the difference between the two nations.
That's also consistent with what we found during interviews in Seattle's Somali community. If there is a network of terrorist supporters, it would seem to fall outside the mainstream. Several Somalis told us they came here because they were sick of the fighting back home, and were relieved to be in the U.S. "We came here, we get work, we get peace, we get a house, we get everything," one woman told us. Of the U.S., she said. "I love it. I love it. I love it."