Counterterrorism

International Terrorism Prosecutions: One Trial, Two Guilty Pleas, and a Sentencing

By Nora Ellingsen
Friday, October 28, 2016, 11:30 AM

Brace yourselves, because it's been a busy couple of weeks for terrorists, law enforcement, and prosecutors.

First, Muhanad Badawi, 25, of Anaheim, California, was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison for conspiring with Nader Elhuzayel to provide material support to ISIL, according to the Justice Department’s press release. Almost a month earlier, Elhuzayel was also sentenced to 30 years. Both men were convicted by a federal grand jury after a two-week trial in June.

This week also saw the end of another unusual terrorism trial. On Tuesday, October 25th, two women from the Washington, D.C. area, Muna Osman Jama, 36, and Hinda Osman Dhirane, 46, were found guilty of one count of conspiracy to provide material support and twenty counts of providing material support to al-Shabaab after a bench trial in the Eastern District of Virginia.

Both defendants were arrested in July 2014, after having been indicted on June 24th with a superseding indictment following only a couple of days later. A co-defendant, Farhia Hassan, was arrested on the same date at her residence in the Netherlands, while two additional co-defendants, Fardowsa Jama Mohamed and Barira Hassan Abdullahi, remain fugitives in Kenya and Somalia, respectively.

While material support in itself is not an uncommon charge, the manner in which Jama and Dhirane were charged is somewhat unusual in 2016. Moving away from the recent trend of subjects being charged with material support for providing themselves to ISIL, these women actually provided money to al-Shabaab—which may explain the unusually high twenty counts of material support in the indictment. The government lists each count and the corresponding money transfer, generally in the $100 range.

To mention the obvious, this case is also unusual in that the defendants are women. Female defendants aren’t unheard of—Jaelyn Young is currently serving eight years after attempting to travel to Syria with her husband—but we don’t come across them often. According to the government, Jama and Dhirane were actually in charge of a worldwide, primarily female network that coordinated monthly payments to al-Shabaab. Jama sent money to Kenya through Mohamed, and Dhirane sent money to Somalia, using Abdullahi as her conduit.

According to the prosecution, the women routinely used code words such as “orphans” and “brothers in the mountains” to refer to al-Shabaab fighters, and “camels” to refer to trucks needed by al-Shabaab. The FBI presumably had FISA coverage of the subjects, as the government presented recorded telephone calls where the subjects laughed about the 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi as it was taking place. The government also alleges that the women had close connections with al-Shabaab leadership and were privy to inside information on al-Shabaab activities.

The bench trial began in July, with closing arguments scheduled for October 11th. According to the Washington Post, the women’s defense lawyers admitted that their clients sympathized with al-Shabaab, but argued that the money they sent didn’t go to clearly defined members of the terrorist organization. Raising a First Amendment defense, the team argued that their clients couldn’t be criminally convicted merely for advocating for al-Shabaab. Finally, they argued, the two women were simply reacting to Somalia’s history of corrupt government, and looked to “al-Shabaab as the hope to establish peace and order and a Sharia system of law.”

In response, the prosecution played the tapes of Jama and Dhirane laughing about the Westgate Mall attack and the Boston Marathon bombing.

Judge Anthony J. Trenga ultimately found Jama guilty on all 21 counts and Dhirane guilty on seven of the 21 counts, noting that she had not yet joined the conspiracy when some of the earlier financial transactions took place in 2011. Sentencing is scheduled for January 19, 2017 and both women face a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.

Two more terrorism subjects, one in Wisconsin and one in Texas, also pled guilty this month to attempting to provide material support to ISIL—both by attempting to join the terrorist organization.

This first is Omar Faraj Saeed Al Hardan, a 24-year-old Houston resident and Iraqi refugee, who spent time in at least two camps in Jordan and Iraq prior to coming to the United States.

In June 2014, Al Hardan began meeting with an FBI source, with whom he would meet a total of 17 times. The two men discussed traveling overseas to fight jihad, and, at Al Hardan’s request, engaged in weapons training with an AK-47. In the factual basis for the guilty plea, Al Hardan admitted that in early 2015, he began talking with the source about additional ways he could support ISIL, specifically through building remote transmitter/receiver detonators for explosive devices with cell phones used as remote activators.

According to the Justice Department’s press release, after Al Hardan’s arrest in January 2016, the FBI found CDs on electronic circuitry training, electronic circuitry components, tools used to build circuitry, multiple cell phones, and an ISIL flag.

Al Hardan was originally indicted in the Southern District of Texas and charged with attempting to provide material support to ISIL, procurement of citizenship or naturalization unlawfully (he had checked “no” on his naturalization form when asked if he associated, directly or indirectly, with a terrorist organization), and making false statements (he said he had never received any weapons training.) He ended up pleading guilty to the first count of attempted material support.

Al Hardan’s sentencing is scheduled for January 17, 2017. He will face up to 20 years in federal prison.

Meanwhile, on October 20th, in federal district court in the Western District of Wisconsin, Joshua Van Haften, 34, also pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to ISIL.

Unlike most travellers who are charged with material support after leaving the United States, Van Haften was charged via a sealed complaint in October 2014, while he was living in Turkey. Perhaps because Van Haften only substantially came onto the FBI’s radar after his departure from the country, the complaint reads a bit differently than most. Along with Van Haften’s Facebook activity, probable cause is largely established via interviews with six unnamed persons, including several former roommates and a former associate.

The fact that Van Haften is one of a handful of subjects who successfully left the country is even more strange given that he never even attempted to practice any sort of operational security. While most of his counterparts were downloading encrypted messaging apps, Van Haften continued to post about his allegiance to ISIL freely on his public Facebook page. At one point he actually approached a stranger and told him about his plans: In late August 2014, a woman filed a complaint with law enforcement after she saw her 11-year old son talking to an unidentified man near the Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin. Her son told her that the man talked about World War III, Syria, and leaving the United States to go to Syria.

When FBI agents tried to locate Van Haften, they discovered that he had left the United States several days earlier for Istanbul. Van Haften later admitted that he had travelled to Turkey and attempted to cross the border into Syria, according to the Justice Department’s press release.

Unsuccessful in his attempts to cross into Syria, Van Houten flew back to the United States in April 2015. After the subject landed at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, the FBI arrested Van Haften, the case was unsealed and he was subsequently indicted.