Two years before federal agents searched her Twin Cities home in 2014, Amina Mohamud Esse told fellow members of an online community that sent money to Al-Shabab that the FBI had contacted her.
It was a lie. She wanted out.
Esse will testify later this month in Virginia against the alleged ringleaders of a network prosectors say sent thousands of dollars overseas to the Somali militant group, according to court documents unsealed this week.
Her case, including a November 2014 guilty plea on charges of supporting Al-Shabab, had been kept secret until now over concerns for her safety and the investigation.
Esse admitted to sending roughly $850 to a Nairobi-based co-conspirator in a series of payments at the direction of Muna Osman Jama,, who awaits a July 11 federal bench trial in Virginia along with Hinda Osman Dhirane,.
Esse is still awaiting sentencing, pending the outcome of her cooperation. The single mother has moved and is under government protection, attorney Robert Sicoli, said.
She offered to cooperate shortly after her 2014 arrest. "She basically said that she felt bad for what she had done," Sicoli said. "She remembered specifically that when she needed help financially, the [U.S.] government had come to her assistance."
Esse's role in the scheme, and her eventual reluctance, are documented throughout a 69-page trial brief filed by the government ahead of the trial. In summer 2012, Esse warned Jama that she had been contacted by the FBI. But, according to court documents, it was a lie designed to distance herself from the defendants.
"The ideology didn't make sense to her anymore," Sicoli said Friday. "What they were doing — it didn't seem right. She didn't buy it, and she started to question it."
Not long after her arrest, Sicoli said, Esse agreed to help the FBI identify additional co-conspirators and further investigate Al-Shabab supporters.
Jama and Dhirane were arrested in June 2014 and charged with 20 counts of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization. Jama herself allegedly sent more than $3,300 overseas to help Al-Shabab. Three others overseas were also charged, including their alleged point of contact in Nairobi.
Spokesmen for the U.S. attorney's office and the FBI declined to comment Friday.
Though not publicly known until this week, Esse's case is one of more than 20 federal Al-Shabab cases in Minnesota, home to the nation's largest Somali-American population. Since 2007, dozens of Minnesotans left to join the group in Somalia, while others were charged with crimes including financing the group. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) more recently became the subject of terrorism recruitment cases, with more than a dozen men either succeeding or attempting to join the group in Syria.
In 2013, two Rochester women were the first set of defendants to be sent to prison from Minneapolis on federal terrorism charges. A federal appeals court last year upheld the sentences of Amina Farah Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, for funneling money to Al-Shabab. Records from their 2011 case are expected to be introduced as evidence in the Virginia trial.
Audrey Alexander, a research fellow at George Washington University's Program on Extremism, has followed the Virginia case as part of her studies into the roles women play in extremist movements.
"It's an intelligent scheme," Alexander said. "They weren't doing big sums of money and were likely under the guise of aid work in some capacity. They were speaking in codes; they knew what they were doing."
Jama focused on raising money for wounded Al-Shabab fighters and in online chats with Esse discussed a scheme to raise money by inviting women to "free" online Islamic lessons. The plan was met with skepticism from Esse.
"It would have been better to just tell them that help is needed," Esse said.
In other chat logs cited by the government, Esse bristled at an invitation from Jama to talk in a "private" chat room with a potential recruit.
"I told you before, you are too impulsive," Esse said. "Sister, I told you, do not connect me to anyone till we get to know the person well. … Do you want me to get arrested?"
Esse's cooperation is also hinted at in the footnotes of pretrial court filings, in which she opined that the "brothers" referred to in one web chat between Jama and Dhirane were men who were also raising money for Al-Shabab.
As part of her plea agreement, Esse agreed to submit to supervision by the local U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services office, stay employed and not obtain a passport or other international travel documents. Judge Michael Davis, also ordered a mental health evaluation, according to court documents.
According to previous motions to seal documents in the case filed by both the U.S. attorney's office in Minnesota and the defense, both sides expressed concern over compromising "operational and security interests."
"Al-Shabab members and associates would obviously not accept or trust the defendant if they knew [she] had been charged and was cooperating with the FBI," according to the filing. "In addition, Al-Shabab may wish to target the defendant or her family members if defendant's cooperation becomes a matter of general knowledge prior to the conclusion of the investigation."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.