A Minneapolis woman who pleaded guilty three years ago in a conspiracy to help send money to the Somali terrorist group Al-Shabab has received a rare sentence of five years' probation.
The sentence, handed down Wednesday in Minneapolis, concludes a winding journey in which Amina Mohamud Esse provided "substantial assistance" to federal prosecutors who were pursuing an international network of at least 15 women who sent thousands of dollars to terrorists.
"My life has been tragic from the day I was born," Esse told Senior U.S. District Judge Michael Davis at her sentencing hearing Wednesday. "I have always suffered."
Esse spent a traumatic childhood in Somalia, enduring abuses from relatives and strangers before the country collapsed in a civil war; then, after moving to Minneapolis, was left to raise three children alone after her husband abandoned her when she refused to continue funneling payments to Al-Shabab militants.
For the first time, federal prosecutors in Minnesota recommended probation for a conviction that carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Kovats cited Esse's cooperation and testimony in the Virginia federal trial of co-conspirators who were later sentenced to more than 10 years in prison.
According to a plea agreement unsealed in July 2016, Esse admitted to sending roughly $850 in a series of small payments to a Nairobi-based co-conspirator between December 2011 and April 2012. She joined the group through an online chat room and participated in pro-Al-Shabab discussions.
On Wednesday, attorney Robert Sicoli said Esse did so at the behest of an abusive husband who was so controlling that he mailed toilet paper back home while working in Tennessee so Esse wouldn't leave the house.
The ex-husband, described as an Al-Shabab supporter now thought to be living in Texas, abandoned Esse when she refused to continue sending payments to the group. Both Kovats and Sicoli declined to comment on whether the ex-husband was under investigation.
Esse was the only co-conspirator to testify against Muna Osman Jama and Hinda Osman Dhirane across two days of their trial last year in Virginia. She described notebooks in which she listed co-conspirators' usernames, phone numbers and contributions. Esse also identified her own voice on recordings and deciphered code words used by the group to avoid detection.
Sicoli said Esse met or spoke with federal authorities nearly 60 times since 2014, and has helped provide information on other cases.
Esse, 43, is now raising three children while working as a personal care attendant and continues to live in Minneapolis under refugee status. She is the 21st defendant in a terrorism case to be sentenced by Davis in Minneapolis. On Wednesday, Davis vowed to help Esse remain in the U.S.
"The court is on your side and will do everything within my constitutional powers to keep you here," Davis said.
Since details of her case became public, Sicoli said in a court filing, Esse "has been shunned both by her family and some segments of the broader Somali community because of her cooperation."
Kovats made a point Wednesday of contrasting the community support received by defendants in last year's ISIS recruitment case to a courtroom devoid of community backing at Esse's hearing on Wednesday. Just one relative appeared, arriving midway through her hearing, while the rest of the galley contained federal authorities, reporters and a few immigration attorneys.
"Look at the community support for someone who did everything right, who repudiated Al-Shabab: there is no one here," Kovats said.