Operation Rhino

by B. Todd Jones
U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota and Chair of the Attorney General's Advisory Committee

 

U.S. Attorneys Laura Duffy (Southern District of California) and Todd Jones (District of Minnesota); photo credit Craig Crawford, Department of Justice Photographer

Laura Duffy, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California (left), and B. Todd Jones, U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota (right) at the Attorney General's al Shabaab press conference.
photo by Lonnie Tague

Federal prosecutors and federal agents have been conducting a long-running, international investigation into a pipeline that supplies men from Minneapolis to the Somalia-based foreign terrorist organization al Shabaab. The “Operation Rhino” investigation has focused on the approximately 20 young and, with one exception, ethnic Somali men who left Minneapolis between September 2007 and October 2009, and those who facilitated or supported their trips. Upon reaching Somalia, the men were trained by and fought with al Shabaab against both the internationally-supported Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia and the Ethiopian Army and African Union soldiers supporting the fledgling government.

The earliest travelers planned their trips at secret meetings in mosques, restaurants, and private residences. They spoke with a senior member of al Shabaab in Somalia, who assured them that they would be supported once they arrived. To finance their trip, they solicited donations from unsuspecting members of the Somali community by purporting to fundraise for charitable causes at local malls and apartment buildings.

The first traveler departed Minneapolis in late October 2007. Six more men traveled to Somalia in December 2007, and the remaining men traveled in small groups over the following twenty months. They traveled through Somalia, staying at multiple al Shabaab safe houses and meeting members of al Shabaab before eventually traveling to al Shabaab training camps in southern Somalia. While in the camps, the travelers were trained by senior members of al Shabaab and a senior member of al Qaeda in East Africa.

Attorney General Holder at press conference
The Attorney General addressing reporters concerning four indictments charging 14 individuals with terrorism violations for providing money and services to al-Shabaab.
photo by Lonnie Tague

Several of the men from Minneapolis have been killed in Somalia and two men from Minneapolis participated in suicide bombing operations. On October 29, 2008, Shriwa Ahmed, one of the December 2007 travelers, took part in one of five apparently coordinated simultaneous suicide attacks on targets in northern Somalia. Shirwa Ahmed drove an explosive laden Toyota truck into an office of the Puntland Intelligence Service in Bossasso, Puntland; other targets included a second Puntland Intelligence Service Office in Bossasso, and the Presidential Palace, United Nations Development Program office, and Ethiopian Trade Mission in Hargeisa. Including the suicide bombers, approximately 20 people were killed in the attacks. Shirwa Ahmed became the first known U.S. citizen to participate in a suicide bombing. On May 30, 2011, Farah Mohamed Beledi, one of the October 2009 travelers, was shot and killed by TFG troops as he attempted to enter their base in Mogadishu while wearing a vest containing explosives. The vest worn by one of Beledi’s cohorts did explode, killing a person at the checkpoint.

Four men have left Somalia and are being or have been prosecuted in the United States. Kamal Said Hassan entered a guilty plea on February 18, 2009, to one count of providing material support to terrorists, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2339A, and one count of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2339B. Hassan later entered a guilty plea to making false statements, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001. He has not yet been sentenced. Abdifatah Yusuf Isse and Salah Osman Ahmed were charged by indictment on February 19, 2009, with providing material support to terrorists, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2339A, and conspiracy to kill abroad, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 956, among other offenses. Isse and Ahmed pled guilty to providing material support to terrorists, but have not yet been sentenced. Mahamud Said Omar has been charged with providing material support to terrorists, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2339A, providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2339B, and conspiracy to kill abroad, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 956, among other offenses. Authorities in the Netherlands arrested Omar in November 2009 pursuant to a provisional arrest warrant. Following a lengthy extradition process, Omar made his first appearance in the District of Minnesota on August 15, 2011. His trial date has not yet been scheduled.

Charges have also been filed against two men who assisted men from Minneapolis with traveling to Somalia. Omer Abdi Mohamed entered a guilty plea on July 18, 2011, to one count of providing material support to terrorists, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2339A, and awaits sentencing. In June 2011, Ahmed Hussein Mahamud was charged with providing material support to terrorists, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2339A, and providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2339B. A trial date for Mahamud has not been scheduled.

Two more men have been charged with obstruction offenses in connection with the investigation. In May 2010, Abdow Munye Abdow entered a guilty plea to obstruction of justice, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c), and later received a sentence of eight months custody. In November 2009, Adarus Abdulle Ali entered a guilty plea to a single count of perjury, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1623. Ali has not yet been sentenced.

The investigation into the recruitment of young men to join al Shabaab and the prosecution of those responsible has been conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota, and the Counterterrorism Section of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. Assistance has been provided by the Dutch KLPD, the Dutch Ministry of Justice, the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs; the U.S. Department of State; the embassies at Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Sanaa, Yemen; and Den Haag in the Netherlands; and the Department of Defense.