NEW YORK — Three Somalia-born men pleaded guilty Tuesday to U.S. charges they were members of the al-Qaeda offshoot that has claimed responsibility for a series of deadly attacks in East Africa, including those on an upscale shopping mall and college in Kenya.
Ali Yasin Ahmed, Madhi Hashi and Mohamed Yusuf pleaded guilty to conspiracy to support terrorism as jury selection was to begin for a trial set to begin next month.
Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn had called the defendants as "dangerous and influential" members of the al-Shabab militant group. They described Hashi as a close associate of Omar Hammami's — an American who became one of the region's most visible Islamic State group rebels before his death in 2013 — and claimed Yusuf was featured in an al-Shabaab propaganda video titled "Inspire the Believers."
In court, each man read a short statement admitting participation in the conspiracy but did not elaborate. The plea deal calls for sentences of up to 15 years in prison and deportation.
Hashi, 25, told U.S. District Judge John Gleeson he was concerned about being returned to Somolia "if it spirals deep down into civil war." The judge said he could ask for a different destination once he served his time.
U.S. authorities say the men were captured in Africa last year while traveling to Yemen to team up with al-Shabab. They originally pleaded not guilty in a sealed proceeding to charges they supported terrorism.
Ahmed, 30, and Yusuf, 32, are citizens of Sweden. According to news reports, Hashi was stripped of his British citizenship before he was brought to the United States.
The charges allege that from 2008 to 2012, the men traveled to Somalia to receive weapons and explosives training from al-Shabab and were "deployed in combat operations" there, prosecutors said.
In conversations intercepted by authorities in Sweden in 2008, Ahmed and Yusuf "discussed ... their intention to travel to Somalia for the purpose of joining al-Shabab and dying as martyrs," court papers said. In another conversation, Ahmed said he was an associate of a suicide bomber who killed two dozen people, including three government ministers, at a hotel gathering in Mogadishu in 2009.
Ahmed was interviewed by authorities in 2008 but denied he was an al-Shabab supporter, the papers allege. But by 2011, all three were in Somalia fighting for al-Shabab and enrolled in a "suicide bomber training program," the papers said.
In 2013, gunmen used grenades and assault rifles to attack an upscale mall in Nairobi, killing at least 67 people. Another terror attack at a college in northeastern Kenya in April left nearly 150 dead.