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For lie about Somalia aid, Saynab Hussein should serve 5 years, prosecutor says

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A nursing student who lied to a federal grand jury about raising money for the terror group al-Shabaab should get up to five years in prison, a prosecutor argues.


Saynab Hussein, 24, deserves more time than that, but sentencing guidelines place a five-year maximum on the perjury charge she pleaded guilty to, Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Kovats lamented in a presentencing memorandum.


He said that while the woman may not have taken up arms and fought for al-Shabaab in her native Somalia, as others from the Twin Cities did, her involvement was no less a crime.


"A substantial sentence is necessary to deter individuals, like the defendant, from believing that simply because they do not pick up a gun or attend a training camp, they do not facilitate terrorism," Kovats wrote.


The sentence, he said, "needs to deter individuals from believing that they can sit at a safe distance, lend support to the violent aims of terrorists and terrorist organizations, and be free from detection and punishment."


Hussein, who had lived in Minneapolis but now resides in Nashville, is to be sentenced Jan. 21 by Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis.


Defense attorney John Lundquist was to file his sentencing brief to Davis by last Friday. It appears he did so, but he filed it under seal.


Reached by phone, Lundquist said he couldn't comment on his sentencing memo, nor could he say what the defense believes would be appropriate punishment.


On Tuesday, he filed a motion asking the court to cover Hussein's travel costs from Tennessee to Minneapolis when she comes for sentencing.


"From our in-depth interactions with Ms. Hussein, we believe that she is indigent and qualifies for reimbursement of travel expenses," Lundquist wrote.


Hussein was charged in August, becoming a footnote in the FBI's "Operation Rhino" investigation into the exodus of Somali men from the Twin Cities to their homeland to fight for al-Shabaab. The terror group has carried out attacks, including suicide bombings, in an attempt to replace Somalia's fledgling government with one hewing to its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.


The charge against her alleges that in June 2009, when she was 19, she lied to a grand jury when she said she didn't know anybody who raised money so Twin Cities men could travel to Somalia to join al-Shabaab.


She later admitted she'd lied. As she acknowledged in her plea agreement, "she herself was asked to send money to these men who left Minnesota to go to Somalia to fight the Ethiopians and personally participated with others ... in fundraising for them."


Hussein had lied about raising money for Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan, one of the local men who traveled to Somalia in 2008. Hassan, known as "Miski," is among 18 men charged in the FBI investigation, and is considered a fugitive.


At a trial for one of the men last year, some of the men who traveled to Somalia and returned testified that their al-Shabaab trainers required them to call people they knew in the Twin Cities -- particularly young women -- and ask them to send money so they could buy AK-47 assault rifles.


Hussein was born in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, in 1989. At the time, the country was embroiled in turmoil that would devolve into civil war by 1991. Hussein's family left the country and lived in a Kenyan refugee camp for nine years before she came to the U.S. and Minneapolis.


She was the 19th person and only woman charged in "Rhino." (Two women from Rochester were convicted of aiding al-Shabaab, but their case was not part of Operation Rhino.)


Young Somali men, whom the FBI came to call "the travelers," began leaving the Twin Cities for their homeland in late 2007. Federal officials haven't specified how many men joined the exodus, only saying it is more than 20.


At least three of the men are believed dead. Some members of the local Somali community have contended that men are still leaving to join al-Shabaab.


In November 2008, family members of some of the missing men went to the FBI, which launched Operation Rhino. A federal grand jury investigation followed, and that was the secret panel Hussein lied to on June 16, 2009.


At the time she entered her guilty plea, Lundquist told the Associated Press that lying "is totally out of character for her, but she was young, naive and terrified" when she was called before the grand jury.


In his sentencing memo, Kovats said the fact Hussein contributed money and lied to a grand jury about it was a serious crime and "warrants a substantial term of imprisonment."


"In the District and State of Minnesota, which has seen a proliferation of cases involving young men traveling to join al-Shabaab, this is no small interest," the prosecutor wrote. "To date, neither the designation of al-Shabaab as a foreign terrorist organization nor prosecution of the men who joined al-Shabaab and those who have supported them, have completely stemmed the flow of support to the foreign terrorist organization from Minnesota."


David Hanners can be reached at 612-338-6516.

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