In a sign of evolving U.S. legal tactics in counter-terrorism operations, two Swedish citizens and a former British citizen detained in Africa in August have been charged in a U.S. court with supporting Somali-based Islamist militants.
The charges were filed in Federal Court in Brooklyn, New York, even though court papers and a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s office make no specific allegation that the three – all of whom are of Somali extraction – posed threats to Americans or U.S.-related targets.
The three suspects – two Swedish citizens and a former London resident whose British citizenship recently was revoked – were charged with supporting the militant group al-Shabaab, illegal use of high-powered firearms, and participating in what prosecutors called “an elite al-Shabaab suicide-bomber program.”
Ephraim Savitt, a former federal prosecutor who represents one of the Swedish defendants, said he was unaware of any secret evidence that the men threatened U.S. interests, and he saw “no prosecutorial hook whatever to the United States.”
Savitt said he was unaware of any previous case in which U.S. authorities had taken custody of foreign militants who had no obvious connection, and posed no known threat, to U.S. interests.
However, a U.S. law enforcement source said there had been cases in the past where suspected foreign militants arrested overseas who had not directly threatened the United States had been brought before U.S. courts on terrorism-related charges.
The latest suspects – Swedes Ali Yasin Ahmed and Mohamed Yusuf, and former British resident Madhi Hashi – were detained by local authorities in Africa in early August while on their way to Yemen, the statement from prosecutors said.
The suspects were subsequently indicted in October by a Brooklyn-based federal grand jury, and in mid-November the FBI “took custody” of them and brought them to Brooklyn, where a revised indictment was filed against them, prosecutors said.
No information about the case was made public until just before Christmas, however.
U.S. officials said they were unable to provide further details about where the suspects were originally arrested, who arrested them, what was the legal basis for their initial arrest, and what happened to them between early August and their first known public court appearance in late December.
However, Savitt, who represents Yusuf, said the men were arrested in Djibouti on their way to Yemen.
He said that at one point the men had been “fighters” with al-Shabaab, a group the United States has linked to al Qaeda. But at the time of their arrest, Savitt said, the men were trying to get away from the group after an apparent falling out.
Savitt said he did not know why they were heading to Yemen.
Saghir Hussain, a British lawyer who represents the family of Hashi, told the BBC this month the case had the “hallmarks of rendition,” a reference to a secret procedure adopted by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency during the administration of former President George W. Bush.
Such renditions involved teams of agency operatives taking custody of suspected militants overseas and handing them over, without legal process, to third countries, where they were sometimes mistreated.
Neither Hussain nor Harry Batchelder, Hashi’s American lawyer, responded to messages requesting comment. Susan Kellman, a U.S. lawyer for Ahmed, also could not be reached.
Savitt said Hashi and the other suspects were detained and held in Djibouti by local authorities, who sometimes treated them roughly, but U.S. officials who at one point were allowed to interrogate them were “civil.”
U.S. government sources familiar with the case said it could not be considered a “rendition,” as in such cases suspects were not brought into the U.S. criminal justice system.
President Barack Obama’s administration has declared it has stopped counter-terrorism practices such as “enhanced interrogations” and the use of secret CIA prisons, but it has not completely renounced the use of “rendition.”
Hashi’s family told the BBC that earlier last summer they received a letter from Britain’s internal security department, the Home Office, declaring that his British citizenship had been revoked as he was deemed a threat to the U.K. security.
Under British law, Hashi had a right to appeal the revocation of his citizenship to an immigration court. A spokesperson for the British Embassy in Washington said that, for legal reasons, the government could not comment on whether or not such an appeal had been filed.