From Somali Jail, Suspected American ISIS Recruiter Denies San Bernardino Link

Accused jihadi recruiter says he quit al Qaeda, only defended ISIS online.

ByABC News
December 10, 2015, 12:26 PM

— -- Sitting in a Somali jail, a Minneapolis man suspected of being a key recruiter for ISIS recently denied that allegation and any link to two domestic terror plots hatched in the U.S., including the recent deadly attack in San Bernardino, Calif., according to a recent news report.

Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan, a Somali national who lived for years in Minneapolis, Minn. and is better known among extremists online as “Miski,” spoke to Voice of America’s Somali Service Tuesday, a day after the U.S. State Department confirmed reports that Hassan was in custody of the Somali government.

In the VOA interview, Hassan denied he had any contact with Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the husband and wife terrorists who killed 14 people in San Bernardino last Wednesday. Over the weekend ABC News reported that investigators were trying to determine if the couple had any online connection with Hassan, a prominent figure in online extremist circles, in the months before he ended up in custody.

Prior to the tragedy in San Bernardino, Hassan was linked to another deadly incident this year in Garland, Texas where two men attempted to attack a Mohammed cartoon event but were gunned down by police before they could kill anyone. In the days and weeks leading up to that attack, one of the gunmen had repeated social media contact purportedly with Hassan over Twitter. Hassan’s page featured messages urging Americans to “do their part” like the three men that killed 12 people in Paris in January in the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Testifying before Congress Wednesday, FBI Director James Comey said that the morning of the Garland attack, “before one of those terrorists left to go commit mass murder, he exchanged 109 messages with an overseas terrorist.”

According to an extended account of the VOA interview provided to ABC News, Hassan denied any link to Garland as well and claimed that “many people” use his Twitter account. Speaking about both San Bernardino and Garland, Hassan reportedly said, “I don’t have anything to do with that attack or have any connections with those people.”

Hassan admitted to having been a member of al Qaeda’s Somali franchise al-Shabab, but told VOA he quit in 2013 because the terror group was unjustly imprisoning, torturing and killing people. Hassan denied he was ever a member of ISIS, a rival Syrian-based terror group, but did not deny that he voiced support for the group online, VOA said.

It is unclear how Hassan ended up in a Somali jail to begin with. When the State Department announced his detention, a spokesperson for the department said he had turned himself in to Somali authorities on Nov. 6. But in his own telling, Hassan said fighters with al-Shabab came to his home last month, where they blindfolded and terrorized his family. Hassan told VOA he was able to escape into the wilderness until about two weeks ago when he was spotted by villagers, who then turned him in to Somali authorities.

The U.S. State Department directed ABC News’ questions on the discrepancy to the Department of Justice, where a spokesperson declined to comment.

Two counter-terrorism officials, one current and one former, told ABC News Hassan had indeed turned himself in and appeared to have been enrolled in a local government rehabilitation program. The officials said some in counter-terrorism circles were annoyed that Hassan was not picked up by American forces so that he could be questioned. The U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with Somalia.

Hassan, who was a legal U.S. resident, told VOA he has no intention of returning to the U.S. He originally fled America in 2009 shortly before he was charged with terror-related crimes for his alleged support of al-Shabab.

“If I did any crimes, I did not commit those crimes in America. Any crimes that I have committed, if there is any, it is done over here in Somalia,” he reportedly told VOA. “I don’t want to come back to the United States… I am in my country. I am with my people… I have no intention of coming back.”

ABC News’ Justin Fishel contributed to this report.