Wiretaps focus of Somali terrorism trial
UT San Diego
Thursday, February 7, 2013
By Greg Moran
SAN DIEGO — For the past two days, jurors in the San Diego federal court trial of four Somali immigrants charged with aiding the terrorist group al-Shabaab have listened to portions of dozens of secretly recorded phone calls that comprise the bulk of the case against the defendants.
There is much talk of the war engulfing Somalia, the politics and of the various alliances among the warring factions. And some of the conversations are sprinkled with references to “stones,” “cartons” and “papers.”
For prosecutors, those are code words for money that the defendants were collecting and wiring overseas to al-Shabaab fighters, to be used to attack forces for the transitional government, international forces, fighters from Ethiopia and civilians.
But over the first week of the trial, defense lawyers have begun to try to undermine the recordings by implying they don’t really mean what prosecutors say they do, and that they are carefully selected and poorly understood snippets of conversations.
The trial is heading into its second full week of testimony before U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller. The defendants are Basaaly Moalin, a San Diego cabdriver who appears most frequently on the recordings; Issa Doreh, a worker at a San Diego money transfer business that sent the funds; Mohamed Mohamed Mohamud, an imam with a City Heights mosque; and Ahmed Nasir Taalil Mohamud, a cabdriver from Anaheim.
All four are charged with conspiracy to provide material support for a terrorist organization and money laundering. In all, they are accused of sending about $8,500 to their home country. All have pleaded not guilty.
Some of the conversations that jurors have heard have not been cryptic at all. On Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney William Cole played a portion of a phone call between Moalin and a man Cole said was Aden Hashi Ayrow, also known as “Shikalow,” one of al-Shabaab’s most prominent leaders.
“We need money, man” Ayrow said to Moalin in a Feb. 3, 2008, call. “Provide some please.”
The call was captured on a wiretap by the FBI.
“You are running late with the stuff,” Ayrow said later in the call. “Send some, and something will happen.”
“Yes,” Moalin responded. “We will do our best.”
The two spoke in Somali, with an English translation scrolling on a large courtroom screen set up across from jurors as the audio of the phone call played. The panel also followed along with a transcription of the conversations bound in thick white binders.
Moalin spoke often to Ayrow before the latter was killed in a missile strike in May 2008. Prosecutors have said he was the main point of contact between San Diego and Somalia.
But Alice Fontier, one of Moalin’s lawyers, tried to highlight that the tapes can’t be totally trusted as she questioned the FBI linguist who listened to and translated hours of the phone conversations.
In her cross-examinations, Fontier suggested that Moalin tends to boast about things and puff himself up. Some of the comments he makes on the tapes are means to be sarcastic or ironic, she said — nuances that are not picked up in the translations.
The conversations that jurors are hearing are highly edited pieces of the calls. Lawyer Joshua Dratel, who also represents Moalin, said to Miller during a break in the testimony that some of the editing cuts off conversations in the middle of a sentence.
The prosecution’s case does not rest entirely on wiretaps. Cole, the prosecutor, has been able to link discussions on the wiretaps about sending money to records from the Shidaal Express money transfer business where Doreh worked.
The records connect fake names used to send the money discussed on the wiretaps to recipients also using fake names in Somalia.
The wiretaps also indicate that later in 2008, after al-Shabaab had been formally designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government, Moalin and people he was speaking to in Somalia became more concerned that they could be under surveillance.
The trial is expected to last several weeks.