Did a Minneapolis Janitor Work for Al-Shabab in the Netherlands?

Somali government soldiers ride to the front lines of a battle between the government and Al-Shabab, the Islamist insurgency Mahamud Said Omar is accused of assisting. Mohamed Dahir / AFP-Getty Images

Mahamud Said Omar is a middle-aged former janitor who used to work at a mosque in Minneapolis frequented by Somali expatriates. According to his lawyer, Omar has possible mental-health issues, and held a succession of other fairly menial jobs before joining the mosque.

But U.S. authorities describe Omar as a significant—if not key—figure in a major investigation into the activities of the violent Islamist group Al-Shabab. Justice Department and FBI documents allege that over a two-year period, Omar provided material support to a foreign terrorist organization—specifically Al-Shabab, which is believed to have attracted dozens of American recruits and is alleged by some U.S. officials to have ideological ties to Al Qaeda. U.S. prosecutors allege that not only did Omar provide money and encouragement to young Minneapolis Muslims heading to Somalia to become Shabab fighters, but that he also financed the purchase of AK-47 assault rifles for the militants.

The feds contend that in January 2008, Omar traveled from Minnesota to Somalia and visited a Shabab safe house there, where recruits from Minneapolis were hanging out. That August, prosecutors say, Omar accompanied two would-be Shabab enlistees to Minneapolis airport as they prepared to depart for Somalia. In late October of that year, Shirwa Mohamud Ahmed, a former Minneapolis resident who had stayed at the safe house that Omar allegedly visited in January, carried out one of five simultaneous suicide bombings by driving a booby-trapped Toyota truck into a local intelligence office in the northern Somali region of Puntland.

The feds say Omar left the United States again in late November 2008, flying via Amsterdam to Amman, apparently on his way to Mecca with a group of Muslim pilgrims from Minnesota. But although he had a return ticket to America for Christmas Eve, the feds say he wasn't on board when FBI agents went to Minneapolis airport to meet his scheduled flight. Witnesses told investigators that Omar had flown back with the group as far as Amsterdam, but that he had not boarded the onward flight to Minneapolis.

Subsequent events raise worries that Al-Shabab may be seeking new recruits or contacts in Europe as well as America. According to Dutch government officials and Bart Stapert, an Amsterdam lawyer who now represents the former janitor, instead of boarding his Amsterdam-Minneapolis flight, Omar went to Dutch authorities and asked for political asylum. Dutch authorities then sent him to a government-supported refugee resettlement facility in Dronten, a new town in the Dutch province of Flevoland, according to Stapert and two Dutch officials who requested anonymity when discussing legal matters. "While in Dronten it is believed he was connected with or working for Al-Shabab," one of the officials tells Declassified.

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Last November, Dutch authorities arrested Omar. After a grand jury in Minneapolis had secretly indicted him in August 2009 on terrorism-related charges, the U.S. government filed a request for his extradition from the Netherlands. Though his case is still being processed—a Dutch court found in favor of his extradition, and Omar's appeal of that ruling is currently pending before Holland's Supreme Court—Omar's activities appear to have provoked concern among Dutch authorities about possible Shabab activities on their soil. According to both a Dutch official and Omar's lawyer, the Dutch government's decision to arrest Omar was based at least in part on a report on him from the AIVD, the Netherlands' small but highly regarded secret intelligence service. Spokespeople for the service have declined to discuss the report's contents, and Omar's lawyer says he has not been granted access to the report.

Omar's lawyer scoffs at the notion that his client could be an important figure in an alleged Somali terror network. According to Stapert, what the Dutch official told Declassified—that Omar was involved in Al-Shabab while in the Dutch refugee center—has not been alleged by Dutch authorities in any official forum; the allegation is new to him, Stapert says. While the lawyer concedes the possibility that Omar may have been in intermittent contact with people involved with Al-Shabab, he says Omar is troubled by "mental issues" that prevented him from holding anything but "menial jobs" since his arrival as an immigrant to the United States. Stapert calls it "preposterous" to suggest that Omar was some kind of terrorist mastermind.