Three men facing federal terrorism charges in New York City have strong ties to the extremist Islamic group that claimed responsibility for the deadly attack on an upscale Kenyan shopping mall, U.S. authorities said.
Two of the men made brief appearances Monday in federal court in Brooklyn, where prosecutors and defense lawyers told a judge they were in plea negotiations. The third is due in court next week.
Prosecutors in the once-secret case have described the defendants — Ali Yasin Ahmed, Madhi Hashi and Mohamed Yusuf — as "dangerous and influential" members of al-Shabab who were part of an elite unit of suicide bombers. Their lawyers deny the allegations.
U.S. authorities say the men were captured in Africa last year while traveling to Yemen to allegedly team up with the al-Qaida offshoot there.
The three had links to al-Qaida operatives in East Africa "who sought to carry out attacks against the United States and Western interests in that region," prosecutors wrote in a letter filed on Sept. 18, three days before rampaging gunmen killed dozens in an attack on the Nairobi mall.
The men are also accused of having "substantial knowledge regarding an al-Shabab research and development department that was developing chemical weapons for use."
Shortly after the FBI took custody of the men and accused them of providing material support to al-Shabab, they pleaded not guilty in a sealed proceeding in federal court in Brooklyn on Nov. 15, 2012.
All three men are from Somalia, authorities said. Ahmed, 27, and Yusuf, 29, are citizens of Sweden. According to press reports, Hashi, 23, was stripped of his British citizenship before he was brought to the United States.
The charges allege that between 2008 and 2012, the men traveled to Somalia to receive weapons and explosives training from al-Shabab and were "deployed in combat operations" there.
"As alleged, these defendants are not aspiring terrorists — they are terrorists," George Venizelos, head of the FBI's New York office, said when the case was first announced. "They did more than receive terrorist training. They put that training to practice in terrorist operations."
Government papers filed this year cited conversations intercepted by authorities in Sweden as evidence against the men.
In 2008, Ahmed and Yusuf "discussed ... their intention to travel to Somalia for the purpose of joining al-Shabab and dying as martyrs," the papers say. 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 added.