A Kenyan man nabbed in an FBI undercover operation pleaded guilty Thursday in Miami federal court to providing thousands of dollars in support to three U.S.-designated terrorist organizations operating under al-Qaida.
Rather than go to trial next month, Mohamed Hussein Said cut a plea deal on a single conspiracy charge of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
Said, 27, faces up to 15 years in prison at his Aug. 14 sentencing before U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro. But he avoids the risk of being convicted on related charges of attempting to provide material support that could have sent him to prison for the rest of his life, said his defense attorney, Silvia Piñera-Vazquez.
The Miami terrorism case was unveiled in 2013, when Said and co-defendant Gufran Ahmed Kauser Mohammed were charged with conspiring to provide material support to three al-Qaida affiliates overseas. Mohammed and Said were accused of plotting to provide a combined total of about $25,000 to the terrorist groups, according to an indictment.
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The charges resulted from a Miami-based investigation involving an FBI employee who had engaged the men in an online financial scheme to back the groups.
Mohammed, who once had lived in California, and Said, who had lived in Mombasa, were arrested in Saudi Arabia and brought to Miami by FBI agents.
Prosecutors Rick del Toro and Brian Frazier argued that Mohammed, who holds a master’s degree in computer science, possessed “a deep hatred for the country that provided him shelter, citizenship and education” and that “his intent was to kill innocent American civilians,” according to court papers.
Said, who has been held without bond, initially maintained that authorities had accused the wrong man and that he never communicated online with the FBI undercover employee to support al-Qaida’s terrorist missions.
Intrigue surrounded the pending June trial because the U.S. attorney’s office wanted two FBI undercover employees to testify in a Miami federal courtroom closed to the public, citing national security concerns.
In April, Ungaro ruled that the public, including the media, could watch their testimony on closed circuit TV in a separate room in the downtown courthouse. Images of the witnesses could be obscured in some manner during the Kenyan man’s trial, which is now canceled because of his guilty plea.
In the undercover operation, a Miami-based FBI employee posed as a brother and a sister who supported al-Qaida as a way to communicate in an Internet chat room with Mohammed and Said overseas, according to the indictment. The men were accused of plotting to finance the terrorist group’s battles in Syria and Somalia.
The “online covert employee” assumed the role of the brother, saying he was an al-Qaida fighter. Then he switched to playing the sister, saying she could help collect money for the terrorist group.
According to the indictment, Mohammed and Said met in Saudi Arabia in May 2011 and agreed to provide financial and other resources to an al-Qaida affiliate, al-Shabab, which was seeking to overthrow the U.S.-backed transitional government in Somalia.
Through September of that year, Mohammed wired Said more than $11,000 via Western Union to back al-Shabab, the indictment stated.
In April 2012, the FBI undercover employee established online contact with Mohammed, according to the indictment. Mohammed arranged to send a series of Western Union wire transfers totaling more than $9,000 through November to the FBI employee. The funds were intended for another al-Qaida affiliate, the Nusra Front, which was fighting the government of President Bashar Assad in Syria.
In December 2012, Mohammed met in Saudi Arabia with a purported associate of the Miami FBI employee and gave him 14,400 Arabian riyals, worth about $3,800, which also was meant to support the Nusra Front, the indictment said.
The Miami FBI employee eventually contacted Said, after Mohammed made introductions over the Internet, according to the indictment. In February 2013, Said contacted the undercover employee and stated in writing that “he had a recruit who would be willing to conduct a martyrdom operation within the United States like one of ‘the 19.’’’
Del Toro, the prosecutor, said that was a reference to the 19 hijackers who participated in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.