A Kenyan man caught in an FBI counter-terrorism operation was sentenced to 15 years in prison on Friday for supplying thousands of dollars to U.S.-designated terrorist organizations linked to al-Qaida.
Rather than go to trial in Miami, Mohamed Hussein Said cut a plea deal in May on a single conspiracy charge of providing “material support.” Said, 27, avoided 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.
At Friday’s hearing in Miami federal court, his defense attorney, Silvia Piñera-Vazquez, asked a judge to give him an eight-year sentence. She argued that Said was more like an American Revolutionary “insurgent” fighting for freedom against a “corrupt” government in Africa than a terrorist who wanted to kill U.S. citizens. “There is no direct evidence of any intent to harm citizens of the United States,” she declared.
But prosecutor Rick Del Toro argued that Said raised $11,000 for an al-Qaida affiliate group, al-Shabaab, to set up a safe house for violent jihadists, contacted leaders in that organization and recruited soldiers for its terrorist missions.
“Insurgents don’t murder innocent women and children,” Del Toro said, referring to al-Shabaab’s terrorist attack that killed 63 people at a Nairobi shopping mall in September 2013.
U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro sided with the prosecutor. She said that Said used the Internet to reach out to an FBI undercover employee in the United States to support terrorist activity, and provided financial support to al-Shabaab through his contacts with its members. She said the FBI’s evidence showed that Said did want to harm the United States, even though the “depth of his involvement” was not completely clear.
“I think it’s the right sentence,” Ungaro concluded, after issuing the maximum prison term for Said’s offense.
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.
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 two years ago.
Mohammed, 31, eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced by Ungaro to the maximum 15 years in prison. Del Toro and fellow prosecutor 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'’ terrorist missions.
Intrigue had surrounded his scheduled 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 was canceled because of his guilty plea in May.
At Friday’s hearing, Ungaro found that Said was likely “more culpable” than Mohammed because the former was “more deeply involved” than the latter in supporting foreign terrorists — contrary to arguments by Said’s defense attorney, who said Mohammed recruited her client.
In the undercover operation, a Miami-based FBI employee posed as a brother and a sister who supported al-Qaida as a way to start communication in an Internet chat room with Mohammed and Said overseas, according to an 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 al-Shabaab, 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-Shabaab, 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,’ ’’ referring to the 19 hijackers who participated in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, prosecutors said.