Three Somalis sentenced to prison for aiding Al-Shabaab group in Somalia
SAN DIEGO— Three local Somali men convicted of aiding a terrorist organization in their war-torn homeland were sent to prison Monday, concluding what’s expected to be the first leg in legal battle that will continue in appeals courts.
The sentencing hearing in San Diego federal court comes four days after the men lost their bid for a new trial, which was requested after it came to light that the investigation was kick-started by the U.S. National Security Agency’s sweeping electronic surveillance program.
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller handed down sentences that were lower than the maximum term and what prosecutors recommended, as he took into account the overwhelming community support for the men and their otherwise upstanding backgrounds.
Still, the judge wanted the sentences to send a strong message against any support of terrorism, saying “seeds of this kind of thinking cannot be sowed here in the United States.”
Basaaly Moalin, a San Diego cabdriver whose actions were considered the most egregious, received the highest term of 18 years.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said Moalin, 36, led the local effort to raise $10,900 in support of al-Shabab, a violent terrorist group fighting for control of Somalia’s transitional government.
Mohamed Mohamed Mohamud, a 41-year-old City Heights imam who used his influence to solicit funds from others, was sentenced to 13 years.
Issa Doreh, 56, who worked at a money transfer business the men used, received 10 years.
A fourth defendant, Orange County cabdriver Ahmed Nasir Taalil Mohamud, is set to be sentenced in January.
They have already served three years and will be required to serve at least 80 percent of the full terms.
“These men willfully sent money to a terrorist organization, knowing al-Shabaab’s extremely violent methods, and knowing the U.S. had designated it as a foreign terrorist organization,” U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said in a statement. “Months of intercepted phone conversations included discussion of suicide bombing, assassinations and Jihad. We are satisfied that because of this investigation and prosecution, we have furthered our mission to safeguard national security by blocking financial support to this dangerous group.”
Volumes of letters and signatures poured in for the men from community members, tribal leaders, government officials and family — both in San Diego and Africa. Moalin alone garnered more than 600 letters or signatures.
A similar tone permeated the pleas for mercy, with stories of men who are dedicated to raising money for education and orphans back home, and to the spiritual and financial support of refugees trying to assimilate in San Diego — home to the second largest Somali population in the U.S., behind Minneapolis.
Moalin sponsored numerous students, Mohamud helped open a school and Doreh volunteered at the same federal jail where he is now being held, their attorneys said.
The defense attorneys also urged the judge to put the men’s criminal acts into the context of the turbulent, ever-changing geopolitical situation of their homeland, where “today’s warlord is tomorrow’s national consensus president,” wrote Joshua Dratel, Moalin’s lawyer.
In traveling to Mogadishu to take depositions, co-counsel Alice Fontier told the judge, “That country is out of the realm of understanding for the average American. … People don’t live in Somalia, they try to survive.”
The case was based on 1,800 intercepted phone calls, obtained from wiretaps authorized by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The calls captured conversations Moalin had with a man who prosecutors said was an al-Shabab leader, as well as the other defendants.
They discussed raising money for the organization and the risk of surveillance, and acknowledged the violence being committed for the cause, said Assistant U.S. Attorney William Cole. Moalin also offered al-Shabab use of his home in Mogadishu, going so far as to instruct them how to best bury bombs in the yard.
The four men were convicted in February.
Defense lawyers argued that none of the conduct was directed against the United States, but prosecutors noted in documents that two of al-Shabab’s later attacks overseas affected San Diegans directly: In a 2010 Uganda suicide bombing, a volunteer with a San Diego-based nonprofit was killed, and in the recent attack on a Kenyan mall, a former Torrey Pines High School student was wounded.
When it was his turn to address the judge, Moalin, a naturalized U.S. citizen, denounced the extremist ideology.
“I love America, I never say anything bad about America,” he said. “I oppose al-Shabab and what they are doing to my people,” adding the group in Somalia killed one of his friends who testified on his behalf.
Mohamud, who is in the U.S. on refugee status, said deporting him to Somalia after his incarceration would be a virtual death sentence by al-Shabab.
Several women in the packed audience wept as the men made remarks to the judge, while other supporters listened from an overflow courtroom.
The defense attorneys said they plan to appeal the case to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where they will again raise the impact the NSA’s secret spying program had on starting the investigation.
The involvement of the warrantless surveillance came to light in July, when FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce testified publicly before Congress and offered the Somali case as an example of the NSA program’s success.
Joyce said Moalin had been investigated in 2003 for suspected terrorist links, but the probe was closed when none was found. In 2007, the NSA tipped off the FBI that a phone number in San Diego had been in “indirect” contact with an “extremist” in Somalia.
In asking for a new trial, the men’s defense lawyers argued that the NSA surveillance violated constitutional rights and raised doubt as to the validity of some of the intelligence that the entire case is based on. The lawyers also asked to be able to review the intelligence, which has remained classified.
Judge Miller ruled against their arguments on Thursday, saying that, while controversial, the protocol that was followed aligns with the law.