SAN DIEGO — A San Diego federal jury on Friday convicted four men, all immigrants from Somalia, of conspiring to raise money and send it back to their war-torn country to fund the terrorist group al-Shabaab.
The verdict ended a three-week long trial and came after 2½ days of deliberations by the panel.
Charged in the case were Basaaly Saeed Moalin, a cabdriver in San Diego; Issa Doreh, a worker at a money remittance business that was the conduit for transferring the funds; Mohamed Mohamed Mohamud, the imam at a City Heights mosque frequented by the city’s immigrant Somali community; and Ahmed Nasiri Taalil Mohamud, a cabdriver from Anaheim.
They were convicted of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and to a foreign terrorist organization, and money laundering conspiracy. They face potentially long prison sentences: 15 years on the terrorism charges and a maximum of 20 years on the money laundering charges. Sentencing is set for May 16.
The men showed no reaction as the verdicts were read in the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey Miller. About a dozen members of the Somali community seated in the audience also looked on silently.
During the trial, the gallery seats were filled each day with about two dozen members of the local community, many who attend the mosque where Mohamud served.
Abdi Mohamoud, executive director of the Horn of Africa organization that provides services for the Somali community in City Heights, said the verdicts will resonate in the tight-knit community.
“Many people know these men, they know their families, their children,” he said. “It’s very tough when someone you know is involved in anything like this.”
While some will be displeased, Mohamoud said that the verdicts should serve as a “wake-up call” for the community. “If there are individuals who are involved in or have connections with groups like al-Shabaab, this should encourage people to stay away from them,” he said.
The investigation by the federal Joint Terrorism Task Force began more than five years ago and involved extensive FBI wiretaps of telephone calls between them and alleged al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia.
The conversations formed the core of the case presented to jurors. Assistant U.S. Attorneys William Cole and Caroline Han contended that the calls revealed the defendants’ efforts — spearheaded by Moalin — to raise money for the fighters, then transfer it using fake names and phone numbers to the fighters in Somali via a City Heights money transfer business.
Al-Shabaab was designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government in February 2008, two months after the wiretaps of the men began. The groups engaged in attacks on peacekeeping and government forces in Somalia at the time, and conducted a campaign of beheadings and bombings, the government said.
While Moalin is featured on most of the calls, Cole told jurors that Mohamud was a “power broker” who used his position as an imam of a City Heights mosque to raise money.
Defense lawyers had a far different take on the conversations. They argued the government had taken snippets of longer conversations and edited them to make the talk appear far more sinister than it was. They said that the men were motivated by charity and trying to raise money for humanitarian purposes back in their home country.
U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said in a statement that she was gratified to see the jury rejected these arguments.
“The jury clearly did not accept defense claims that months of intercepted conversations about bullets, bombings and Jihad were actually conversations about their charitable efforts for orphans and schools,” she said.
“This case proves that our efforts to detect and disrupt terrorist financing — and prevent the violence that goes along with it — has paid off.”
The wiretapped conversations spanned a period from December 2007 to August 2008. In all, prosecutors said the amount of money raised for the fighters was about $8,500. In addition, they said that Moalin also provided another form of support when he allowed al-Shabaab fighters to use a home he owned in the capital of Mogadishu.
Much of the trial came down to debate about what was said on the wiretaps, by whom and what was left out.
Cole said that some of the conversations are conducted in a kind of code to obscure the meaning of what was being discussed. When discussing money transfers, for example, the defendants spoke about “bundles” or “stones” that he said was code for increments of money.
Many of the early conversations were recordings between Moalin and Aden Hashi Ayrow, a man who prosecutors said was a leader of al-Shabaab and a dedicated terrorist. On some recordings he is heard giving details of recent attacks and battles against Ethiopian forces or troops supporting the nascent Transitional Federal Government, which was trying to establish itself as an interim government in the war-torn country.
But the defense team said the government had built the entire case on a flawed premise: that Moalin was communicating with Ayrow. “They see al-Shabaab everywhere,” defense lawyer Joshua Dratel said in closing arguments.
Instead, the defense said another man, a police official who was opposed to al-Shabaab, was the person speaking on the phone. They located that man and took his testimony, along with several others, in a trip to Djibouti. The testimony was videotaped and played to jurors as part of the defense case.
Defense lawyers declined to comment after the verdict.
The defense team also attacked the government’s English translation of the tapes, contending it misinterpreted and botched key words and phrases. They provided their own translations of the conversations which were far more benign — and accurate, they said.
Ayrow was killed by a U.S. missile strike in May 2008. Prosecutors said the men continued to raise money over the next few months but by late summer were becoming more wary. In one conversation in July, Moalin indicated he was suspicious of being monitored and said it was time to “lay low.”