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Former San Diegan pleads guilty in Islamic State terror case

Courtroom and gavel. (Joe Gratz/Flickr)

A former San Diego man pleaded guilty Friday to helping fund the Islamic State’s campaign of terror, including paying for the overseas travel of another San Diegan, who is believed to be the first U.S. citizen killed while fighting for the group in Syria in 2014.

Abdullahi Ahmed Abdullahi pleaded guilty to two charges relating to providing material support to terrorists. In the plea agreement, he admitted to a scheme to provide $4,650 to a group of comrades knowing it would be used to in preparation for or in carrying out terrorist activities in Syria, “including killing, kidnapping and maiming” people.

The case has provided a window into ISIS’ heavy recruitment efforts targeting Westerners, radicalizing them into not only supporting the group’s cause but into taking more direct action by traveling abroad to take up arms in the violent play for a caliphate.

Abdullahi, who had at one time resided in San Diego, was living in Edmonton, Canada, in November 2013 when three of his cousins traveled from there to Turkey, then onto Syria, to join the Islamic State, according to a detailed accounting of the crime in the plea agreement.

He assisted almost immediately by withdrawing about $2,800 in Canadian dollars from one of the cousins’ bank account in Canada and sending it on to Syria.

Abdullahi, using the moniker “Phish,” later sent an email to the cousin saying he’d heard the trio was successful in killing their enemies on the battlefield and that another was a good marksman.

The correspondence from Syria urged Abdullahi to come fight alongside them, and also to provide more funds to another cousin in the U.S. to send him to fight. To do that, Abdullahi was encouraged to steal and commit fraud against the “kuffar” — or non-Muslims — reasoning that such criminal activity was allowed under Islamic law.

So on Jan. 9, 2014, Abdullahi robbed a jewelry store in Edmonton. But he explained in a subsequent email to those in Syria that the funds would be slow to arrive because he was having trouble pawning the stolen jewelry.

He eventually wired about $3,000 to someone in San Diego County with directions to use the money to purchase airline tickets for Douglas McCain, a former San Diego City College student, and the cousin, Hanad Mohallim, to join the fight.

The two departed for Turkey on March 9, 2014 — McCain from San Diego and Mohallim from Minneapolis. Then they traveled to Syria, “where they joined ISIS, and engaged in armed battles to gain control of the territories and civilian populations within Syria on behalf of ISIS,” the plea states.

In an email, Abdullahi pledged to send “every dime that[‘] s in [his] pocket” to the effort. He later caused someone in Dubai to wire about $1,400 to Turkey to further support the foreign fighters.

Months later, in August, McCain was killed fighting Free Syrian Army forces; he was believed to be the first U.S. citizen-turned-ISIS fighter to die. Mohallim and the original three who left for Syria were killed in November of that year.

After McCain’s death, the FBI began investigating his brother, Marchello McCain, living in east San Diego, who had been included in the email correspondence and spoke of trying to join the others in Syria.

The younger brother was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison for lying to the FBI about his sibling, as well as being a felon in possession of firearms. Marchello McCain’s social media account had included videos of him practicing shooting at a firing range weeks before his older brother’s departure. A 2005 conviction in Minnesota prevented him from possessing guns.

Abdullahi was arrested in Canada in connection with the armed robbery in 2017 and extradited to San Diego on the terror indictment in 2019.

The prosecution and defense are recommending a prison term of 20 years when he is sentenced next year. He may also be ordered to pay up to $40,000 in restitution to the owner of the Edmonton jewelry store, according to the plea agreement.

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