MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Two men who left Minnesota to join the terrorist group al-Shabab in Somalia were sentenced to three years in federal prison Tuesday, getting reduced sentences for their cooperation with the government's investigation into what has been called one of the largest efforts to recruit U.S. fighters into a foreign terror group.
Abdifatah Yusuf Isse and Salah Osman Ahmed both traveled to Somalia in 2007 and spent about a week in an al-Shabab training camp. They found a way to leave the camp once they learned what al-Shabab was all about.
They each pleaded guilty in 2009 to one count of providing material support to a terrorist group. They each faced a maximum of 15 years in prison. But prosecutors asked for sentences of around six to seven years because both cooperated with the investigation into recruiting and financing for al-Shabab.
U.S. District Judge Michael Davis gave the two men three years apiece, and they're expected to get credit for time served.
Later Tuesday, Davis handed down a 12-year sentence to Omer Abdi Mohamed, who allegedly served as a recruiter for al-Shabab in the U.S. He pleaded guilty in 2011 on the eve of going to trial on one count of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists. He also faced a maximum of 15 years in prison but prosecutors asked for less time because of his cooperation.
Unlike several other defendants in the case, Mohamed was not accused of traveling to Somalia to fight for al-Shabab, though he admitted to helping some Minnesota men get plane tickets to Somalia. During last year's trial of another defendant, witnesses said Mohamed used his knowledge of the Quran to convince young men that they had a duty to fight.
His attorney denied that he played any role in recruiting. But after that trial, Mohamed was re-arrested when the court learned he was working at a school. At the time, Davis called him "a danger to the community."
One other man convicted in the case was to be sentenced Tuesday as well, and three more people face sentencing later this week in this case and a case on terror financing.
Davis handed down two sentences in the long-running case on Monday. A man who authorities say played a key role in funneling young men from Minnesota to al-Shabab got 20 years in prison, while a foot soldier for al-Shabab, who participated in an ambush on Ethiopian troops, got 10 years.
"I'm going to take a chance on you," Davis told Isse when granting him a lesser sentence.
He pointed to Isse's decision to leave the al-Shabab training camp: "You devised a scheme to get away. That told me a lot about you. ... If you had been involved in the ambush, you'd be doing a lot of time."
Davis did not explain the 12-year sentence he handed down to Mohamed, who asked him for mercy and said he never would want to harm the U.S.
"I made a terrible, a wrong," Mohamed told the judge. "I regret it."
The courtroom was packed with dozens of his supporters, while others had to wait downstairs. Defense attorney Peter Wold told the judge about 200 Somali community members had written letters to the court on his behalf, calling him respectful, kind and helpful.
"I have a very strong community that knows my heart," Mohamed said.
Authorities say that more than 20 young men left Minnesota to join al-Shabab starting in 2007, when small groups of local Somalis began holding secret meetings to talk about returning to their homeland to wage jihad against Ethiopians. The Ethiopian army was brought into Somalia in 2006 by its weak U.N.-backed government, but the troops were viewed by many Somalis as invaders.
Davis, who has overseen these cases for years, said he still struggles to understand what would make young men from good families, who came to Minnesota as refugees, choose to return to violence.
"We have to figure out what's going on and try to make sure this never happens again," he said.
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