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Associated Press, Published May 13 2013

Sentencings begin in Somali terror investigation

MINNEAPOLIS — A man who authorities say played a key role in funneling young men from Minnesota to the terrorist group al-Shabab in Somalia is scheduled to be sentenced Monday, as the court begins doling out penalties in what has been called one of the largest efforts to recruit U.S. fighters into a foreign terrorist group.

Mahamud Said Omar, 47, was convicted last year on five terror-related counts, including one that could carry a maximum sentence of life in prison. Prosecutors are seeking 50 years when he is sentenced Monday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.

Also scheduled for sentencing is Kamal Said Hassan, a former al-Shabab foot soldier who trained with a group linked to al-Qaida in Somalia and participating in an ambush of Ethiopian troops. He faces up to 38 years in prison, and prosecutors are seeking the maximum.

Hassan, 28, is among the more than 20 young men who have left Minnesota since 2007 to join al-Shabab. Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the U.S.

Authorities say the conspiracy began in 2007, when small groups of Somali men began holding secret meetings to talk about returning to their homeland to wage jihad against Ethiopians. The Ethiopian army was brought into Somalia in 2006 by its weak U.N.-backed government, but the troops were viewed by many Somalis as invaders.

During Omar's trial, prosecutors alleged Omar, a janitor at a local mosque, used recruits as "cannon fodder" and helped feed them into a pipeline of violence in their homeland. They said he continued to help travelers with logistics and money even in the days after one Minnesotan carried out a suicide bombing in Somalia in 2008. Prosecutors say most of men who left in that group of travelers have died.

"The pain, physical and psychological, that the defendant's crimes have causes, both here in Minnesota and in Somalia, is almost incalculable, as is the threat his participation in international terrorism posed to the national security of the United States," prosecutors wrote in documents filed in advance of Omar's sentencing hearing.

Omar's defense attorneys are seeking a lesser sentence, arguing in court documents that he was a passive participant who didn't know any better and held no power.

"Mr. Omar was a pawn who, because of his mental disabilities became involved in an organization whose evil was far more advanced than he could comprehend," defense attorney Andrew Birrell wrote.

Hassan, who was convicted on two terror-related counts and one count of lying to the FBI, has admitted that he went to Somalia to fight against Ethiopians, trained with al-Shabab and left after participating in an ambush of Ethiopian troops.

Prosecutors argue that 38 years would be an appropriate sentence because of the seriousness of his offense and to deter further acts of terrorism by Hassan and others who might be inclined to leave the United States to use violence to bring about change in foreign countries.

Hassan's defense attorneys argued for a sentence that would be "sufficient but not longer than necessary." They note Hassan has been in custody since 2009, and has changed greatly from the 22-year-old who joined al-Shabab back in 2007.

Defense attorneys for both men have argued that their clients are not terrorists; but prosecutors have argued that both men posed a grave threat to U.S. national security.

Prosecutors wrote that Minnesota has seen far many instances of young men traveling to join al-Shabab, "and far too many of those young men have either died themselves or killed others, or both." The government added that, to date, neither al-Shabab's designation as a terrorist group nor the prosecutions of men in the U.S. have stemmed the flow of al-Shabab support from Minnesota.

"Given the compelling need to deter the continued threat that home-grown terrorists and those that support them pose to the United States and our allies," prosecutors wrote, "a substantial term of imprisonment would send a clear message to any would-be jihadists that such conduct is not tolerated by the U.S. government."

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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.