Two Swedish citizens who US prosecutors say fought alongside the Islamist militant group al Shabab in Somalia have been sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Ali Yasin Ahmed, 31, and Mohamed Yusuf, 33, were sentenced by US District Judge John Gleeson in Brooklyn, New York, on Friday in light of their guilty pleas in May to conspiring to provide material support to al Shabab.
Prosecutors had sought 15 years in prison for the Somali-born men, who they called “operational members of a terrorist organisation”.
But while Judge Gleeson said that was correct, he said he also partly accepted their lawyers’ characterisations of the men as freedom fighters who only joined al Shabab to return to war-torn Somalia to fight against Ethiopia.
“This is not a black-and-white situation,” Gleeson said.
Prosecutors said Ahmed and Yusuf abandoned their homes in Sweden in 2008 to travel to Somalia to undergo military and doctrinal training with al Shabab.
The militant group, which seeks to overthrow Somalia’s Western-backed government and impose a strict version of sharia, or Islamic law, has links to al Qaeda and has carried out attacks in Kenya and Ethiopia.
After receiving training, Ahmed and Yusuf had travelled to Mogadishu, where they fought in battles alongside other US and European fighters who had joined al Shabab to take control of the city in 2009, prosecutors said.
Ahmed and Yusuf continued to train and fight with al Shabab, prosecutors said, and Yusuf appeared in a propaganda video filmed in Mogadishu urging people to fight on behalf of the militant group.
The men and a former British citizen, Madhi Hashi, were arrested in August 2012 in Djibouti after illegally crossing the border from Somalia on their way to Yemen to join al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, prosecutors said.
Their lawyers said the men were tortured while in custody in Djibouti over the next several months before being turned over to US authorities for prosecution, though their case had no allegations that they intended any direct harm to the United States.
Assistant US Attorney Shreve Ariail said the “unconscionable” treatment they received in Djibouti factored into extending plea deals that capped their prison terms at 15 years.
The men, who before pleading guilty faced 30 years to life in prison, will be deported after they are released from prison.