Somali woman gets 8 years on terror charge
SAN DIEGO — The money that Nima Yusuf raised and sent back to her home country of Somalia came in small increments and, in the end, didn't amount to very much — $1,450 in all.
But federal prosecutors said the amount of money really didn't matter. The San Diego County woman knew that the funds were being used by four fighters for the terrorist group al-Shabaab — a crime that sent her to prison for eight years on Tuesday.
The sentence handed down by U.S. District Court Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz was less than the maximum 15 years she could have received, falling somewhere in the middle of the five years the defense sought, and the decade prosecutors said they wanted. Yusuf, 26, pleaded guilty a year ago to conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization, acknowledging sending the money then lying to investigators about it.
The judge settled on the eight years as an appropriate punishment that factored in the seriousness of the offense, as well as the unique circumstances behind Yusuf's involvement.
In a letter to the judge written before the sentencing, Yusuf recalled in vivid terms a lifetime of horror, heartbreak, and happiness — all before she was 16.
Born in Mogadishu, both her mother and father were wounded by gunfire as that nation collapsed. The family fled to a refugee camp in Kenya, when she was 4, and lived there for 11 years.
It was hardly a relief. Guards were corrupt, brutal, and worse. Yusuf said she was gang-raped when she was 13 years old by eight soldiers.
Two years later, the family was able to immigrate to the U.S. They landed in Salt Lake City, where they were welcomed with open arms. Yusuf went to school, got good grades, got involved in Girl Scouts and played sports.
It was, she wrote, a wonder.
"I was overwhelmed by the freedom of this country," she wrote. "I could pass men on the street, and stay safe. I could eat all the food my stomach could hold."
The family moved to San Diego, the warm weather easier on her parents and their health problems that stemmed from the war wounds. In 2008 she fell in love with a Somali man from Minneapolis, but his family wanted him to marry another woman. She was shattered, and while staying in Minneapolis met young men from the neighborhood, devout Muslims and supporters of al-Shabaab.
The U.S. government named al-Shabaab a terrorist group in 2008. More than 20 Somali men from Minneapolis left to fight in Somalia between 2007 and 2009. One of them whom Yusuf knew ended up killing himself in a suicide bombing there.
Her lawyers had argued that her support of the group was akin to a teenage girl's infatuation or crush. They described her as immature emotionally, who gained status in the immigrant community by professing support for the group.
In a seven-month period in 2010, Yusuf sent $1,450 back to Somalia. The money went in increments of not less than $50 and not more than $200.
Charles Rees, one of Yusuf's lawyers, said she never intended the funds to go for bombs. Instead, he said she believed she was helping the young men with debts, medical assistance and other matters.
"She never meant any harm to the U.S," he said.
But prosecutors did not see it that way. The case against Yusuf was built on hours of wiretapped phone calls she made to Somalia. Assistant U.S. Attorney Sabrina Feve said in court papers that Yusuf comes across in some of those recordings as "an insecure, immature young woman" whose connection with the fighters "made her feel better by making her feel important."
But she told Moskowitz other recordings reveal a different side, one that angrily lashed out at people who criticized al-Shabaab and was not totally naive about the group.
"She knew who these people were, she knew what they were fighting for," she said.
She was living in an apartment in Lemon Grove at the time of her arrest.
At the end of the hearing, Yusuf turned to a courtroom full of family and friends, many of them Somali women like her covered in traditional clothing. Tearfully, she said she was blessed to have them as a family.
She also said she knew in the future to separate her politics from her faith.
"I don't want any other young Somali woman to go through what I went through," she said.