Two men accused of providing thousands of dollars and recruiting fighters for terrorist organizations overseas pleaded not guilty Tuesday at a hearing where prosecutors revealed the case against them was built largely by an undercover FBI agent posing on the Internet as a terror finance middleman
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ricardo Del Toro said at a bail hearing that the agent, known only as an "Online Covert Employee," actually used brother and sister personas in an Internet chat room to make contact with Gufran Ahmed Kauser Mohammed, a naturalized U.S. citizen from India who relocated in 2011 to Saudi Arabia. Mohammed was interested in using the FBI undercover agent to help finance al-Qaida and affiliated terror groups in Syria and East Africa, authorities say.
In July 2012, for example, Mohammed told the FBI agent in the chat room that he wanted one of his wire transfers "to fund an al-Qaida terrorist attack on United States citizens or the United Nations," Del Toro said. No specific targets were named.
The other suspect, 25-year-old Mohamed Hussein Said, is a Kenyan involved with al-Shabaab, an African terror organization currently attempting to replace Somalia's government with one that observes strict Islamic law, Del Toro said. Said, who had never traveled to the U.S. until his arrest, identified terrorist fighters for a Syrian offshoot of al-Qaida and received more than $11,000 from Mohammed for the al-Shabaab organization, court documents show.
In one of the online chats, Said in February said he had one recruit "who would be willing to conduct a martyrdom operation within the United States and be like one of the 19," the indictment says. Del Toro said Said was referring to the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The two men never met in person until their arrests earlier this month in Saudi Arabia. Del Toro said the FBI undercover agent posed as Mohammed on the Internet to convince Said to travel from Mombassa, Kenya, to Saudi Arabia. The men were taken into custody by the Saudis, turned over to the FBI and immediately flown to Miami to face the terror support charges.
The undercover online FBI agent worked out of the Miami office and many of Mohammed's wire transfers actually wound up here. All told, Mohammed attempted to send more than $25,000 to fund al-Qaida and the affiliates, according to the indictment.
U.S. Magistrate Judge John J. O'Sullivan ordered both men held without bail until trial. Mohammed's attorney, Vince Farina, said his client had a computer science master's degree from UCLA and had brothers living in both California and Texas, as well as parents in California. Farina did not provide their names.
"He's never been arrested prior to this indictment," Farina said. "There are many questions about how this case came about."
Said's attorney, Silvia Pinera-Vazquez, questioned how the FBI could be so sure her client was the one at the computer during Internet chats with the FBI undercover agent, since no one actually saw him doing so. According to the FBI, most of the wire transfers from Mohammed were picked up by Said's wife.
Still, Pinera-Vazquez said, "there was no face-to-face. There could be a huge identity issue in this case."
Del Toro, however, said prosecutors and the FBI have recordings, transcripts of the Internet chats and other records to back up the charges. Said also provided the FBI undercover agent with copies of passports of some of the terror recruits, he added.
"The evidence against these defendants is overwhelming," he said.
If convicted, Said and Mohammed each face up to 15 years in federal prison on each of the 15 charges, or a possible maximum of 225 years behind bars.