(Reuters) - Four Somali immigrants, including a popular imam at a San Diego-area mosque, were convicted by a U.S. federal jury on Friday of conspiring to provide material support to an al Qaeda-linked Islamist militia in the Horn of Africa nation.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of California said that the men - the imam, two cab drivers and an employee at a money transmitting business - had conspired to raise and send money to Somali al Shabaab rebels.
Al Shabaab militants want to impose a strict version of Islamic law in war-ravaged Somalia, but have lost significant territory in the southern and central parts of the country in the face of an offensive by African Union troops.
According to the evidence presented at trial, the men conspired to transfer funds from San Diego to Somalia through the Shidaal Express, a now-defunct money transmitting business in San Diego.
The U.S. Attorney's office said the jury had listened to intercepted phone conversations between one of the men, San Diego cab driver Basaaly Saeed Moalin, and an al Shabaab leader who was later killed in a U.S. airstrike.
Aden Hashi Ayro implored the cab driver in those calls to send money to al Shabaab, telling him it was "time to finance the Jihad."
"You are running late with the stuff. Send some and something will happen," Ayro told Moalin. He also repeatedly asked him to reach out to Mohamed Mohamed Mohamud - an imam at the City Heights mosque - to obtain funds for the group.
U.S. warplanes killed Ayro, the Afghan-trained then-leader of al Shabaab who was said to be al Qaeda's top man in the country, in 2008. Under Ayro, al Shabaab had adopted Iraq-style tactics, including assassinations, roadside bombs and suicide bombings.
Prosecutors also presented a recorded telephone conversation in which Moalin gave the rebels permission to use his house in the capital Mogadishu. Prosecutors argued he was offering the home as a place to hide weapons.
U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said the prosecution was the result of a lengthy investigation by the San Diego Joint Terrorism Task Force.
"This case proves that our efforts to detect and disrupt terrorist financing - and prevent the violence that goes along with it - has paid off," Duffy said in a statement.
"The jury clearly did not accept defense claims that months of intercepted conversations about bullets, bombings and Jihad were actually conversations about their charitable efforts for orphans and schools," she added.
Convicted alongside Mohamud and Moalin were 37-year-old Anaheim cab driver Ahmed Nasiri Taalil Mohamud and 56-year-old Issa Doreh, who worked at a money transmitting business.
The four men are due to be sentenced on May 16 on various conspiracy and money laundering charges, which each carry maximum penalties of 15 to 20 years in jail and combined fines of up to $1 million.
(Writing by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)