Somali terrorism trial gets under way
UT - San Diego
Thursday, January 31, 2013
By Greg Moran
SAN DIEGO — Scores of recorded phone calls show that four Somali immigrants conspired in 2008 to raise money and send it to their homeland to assist the terrorist group al-Shabaab, a federal prosecutor said at the opening Wednesday of a terrorism trial in San Diego.
But defense lawyers for the four men countered that those phone calls, as well as other evidence, has been misconstrued and taken out of context by prosecutors, and that the funds sent were for humanitarian — not terrorist — purposes.
The trial, expected to last three weeks, covers events from January to August 2008, when about $8,500 of cash was sent from San Diego to Somalia. The four defendants are charged with conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and to a foreign terrorist organization — in this instance, the Somali-based group al-Shabaab. They are also charged with money laundering.
The U.S. government designated Al-Shabaab a terrorist organization in 2008. Its members have been connected to bombings, assassinations, and attacks on civilians, officials with various governments in the unstable country, and peacekeeping forces. It’s also been linked to al-Qaeda.
The defendants come from widely different backgrounds. Basally Saeed Moalin was a cabdriver in San Diego before his arrest in 2010. Assistant U.S. Attorney Caroline Han told jurors he was the main connection with the fighters in Somalia and orchestrated the fundraising in San Diego.
Mohamed Mohamed Mohamud was the popular imam of the al-Ansar mosque in City Heights, in the heart of the San Diego’s immigrant Somali community. Issa Doreh worked at the Shidaal Express, a hawala, or money-transfer business. The fourth defendant, Ahmed Nasir Taalil Mohamud, was a cabdriver in Anaheim who met Moalin when both drove taxis in St. Louis.
The prosecution has been closely followed by San Diego’s Somali immigrants. At every hearing in the run-up to the trial, dozens of supporters from the Somali community have filled the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller.
In a rare move Wednesday, the court opened an adjacent courtroom for the overflow crowd, piping in an audio feed of the proceedings. Several supporters donned orange ribbons on their jackets and robes in a show of support for the men when they filed into the courtroom for the start of the trial, but they were told to remove them.
“People are following it a lot and are very interested in what is going to happen,” said Hussein Nuur, director of economic development for the Horn of Africa community group in City Heights.
Nuur said much of the talk focuses on Mohamud, the imam and spiritual leader for the mosque. Skepticism of the government’s case runs high, he said.
“To be honest, a lot of people believe they are innocent,” Nuur said. “They want to see what kind of evidence the government is going to present.”
That evidence is largely comprised of hundreds of secretly recorded wiretaps on the phone calls made by Moalin and others.
Han said they show how Moalin interacted with a Somali fighter named Aden Hashi Ayrow, a militia commander who was a “rock star” in the al-Shabaab group in Somalia, to raise funds in San Diego for the fighters. The money was transferred via Shidaal Express, where Doreh worked.
She said they used fake names on phone numbers on the money transfers and used code words in phone conversations.
“They knew what al-Shabaab was doing, and what they were doing,” Han said.
But Joshua Dratel, the lawyer for Moalin, said the government took snippets of conversations out of context and misinterpreted the meaning. He said the man on the other end of many of the conversations is not Ayrow, but another Somali man who was actually opposed to al-Shabaab.
Linda Moreno, Mohamud’s lawyer, said her client is heard in only 11 phone conversations out of more than 2,000 recorded. She said the money raised in San Diego was not intended for fighters but sent to support charitable activities.
Defense lawyers also said a potential government witness is the former owner of Shidaal Express, who pleaded guilty in a separate case to running a huge Ponzi scheme that victimized Somalis. His testimony is an effort to lessen his sentence, said Doreh’s lawyer, Ahmed Ghappour.
The case reflects the kinds of terrorism prosecutions that the U.S. Justice Department has brought across the country in recent years.
In 2011, the material support charge was filed in 87 percent of all terrorism cases filed by federal prosecutors, according to a study of all cases complied by the Center for Law and Security at the New York University School of Law. That is a sharp increase from 2007, when the charge was filed in just 11 percent of all terrorism cases.
Under the law, material support can mean everything from providing money, weapons or personnel to a terrorist group. It carries a potential sentence of 15 years to life in prison.