ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — Two women who used an Internet chat room to raise several thousand dollars for the Somali militant group al-Shabab have been convicted of providing support to a terrorist organization.
U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga found the women — Muna Osman Jama, 36, of Reston, and Hinda Osman Dhirane, 46, of Kent, Washington — guilty on most of the charges they faced on Tuesday after they waived their right to a jury trial.
Prosecutors say the women used the chat room to round up small contributions on behalf of al-Shabab.
The women did not deny their sympathies for al-Shabab. But their defense lawyers argued that the money they raised went to people who were not clearly defined members of al-Shabab.
They also argued that the women intended the money to be used to support safe houses sheltering injured al-Shabab soldiers. And they argued that sending money to a safehouse in Kenya that cared for injured al-Shabab soldiers could not be held against the women, because providing funds for medicine in an armed conflict cannot be considered a criminal act under international treaties.
The defense also raised First Amendment issues, saying their advocacy for al-Shabab should not be fodder for a criminal conviction.
But the judge disagreed, and said in his ruling Tuesday that the two women were integral parts of al-Shabab's fundraising operations. And he rejected the First Amendment defense.
"They are not being punished for advocacy but for their actions," Trenga said. He convicted Jama on all 21 counts she faced, and found Dhirane guilty on seven of 21 counts, ruling that Dhirane had not yet joined the conspiracy when some of the earlier financial transactions in 2011 and early 2012 occurred.
The judge ordered both women, who had been free on bond during the trial, taken into custody immediately. They could face sentences of 15 years when they are sentenced in January.
Al-Shabab, which has been linked to al-Qaida, claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks including the 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya that killed 67 people.
Dhirane's lawyer, Paula Deutsch, said the women's advocacy for al-Shabab should be understood in the context of Somalia's history of corrupt and at times nonexistent government. In her opening statement, she said many Somalis "saw al-Shabab as the hope to establish peace and order and a Sharia system of law."
Defense lawyer Alan Yamamoto argued that the women pose no threat, saying the money amounted to less than $5,000 over several years.
"They sent small amounts of money, $50 or $100 here or there. This was a bunch of ladies that would sit on the phone all day and gossip for hours about everything under the sun. And you get these snippets of conversations about al-Shabab," Yamamoto said, as he argued for Dhirane to remain free on bond pending sentencing. "There's no reason to believe they're a danger to society."
But prosecutor James P. Gillis said the women's actions are undeserving of sympathy.
"They rejoiced at the slaughter of innocent children and women at the Westgate Mall. They rejoiced at the slaughter at the Boston Marathon. They laughed at the mayhem al-Shabab caused. They couldn't have been more joyous," Gillis said, pointed to recorded conversations introduced at trial.
Dhirane's husband, Rashid Jama Barhadle, said after the verdict that his wife didn't do anything wrong and that the money she sent back was "for the poor people, for the people back home."
He said the couple has six kids, ages 7 to 22, and that he was not prepared for his wife to be taken immediately into custody.
"Today was very, very bad," he said.
In a statement, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Dana Boente, whose office prosecuted the case, said the women were rightfully convicted of "a very serious crime. These women funneled money to a terrorist organization which was conducting a violent insurgency campaign in Somalia."
Defense lawyers indicated they planned to appeal.