Guilty plea in NY 'mini-al Qaida' cell case

A New Yorker accused of trying to start what prosecutors called "a mini al-Qaida cell" pleaded guilty Monday to federal charges of conspiracy and providing material support to a terrorist organization.

An indictment had alleged that Wesam El-Hanafi pledged loyalty to al-Qaida and sought to teach the terror group how to evade detection on the Internet after he went to Yemen in 2008.

The Brooklyn-born El-Hanafi admitted in federal court in Manhattan to having conversations in 2009 with a co-defendant about "seeking out additional contacts within al-Qaida." The co-defendant, Sabirhan Hasanoff, pleaded guilty to similar charges earlier this month.

Prosecutors had portrayed the two U.S. citizens as a new, more sophisticated breed of homegrown terrorist: Both had earned college degrees and landed well-paying jobs before trying to share their expertise with al-Qaida.

El-Hanafi, 37, faces up to 20 years in prison. No sentencing date has been scheduled.

He was arrested in Virginia on April 30, 2010, after he was brought to the United States from Dubai, where he was being paid $170,000 a year to work in a government job safeguarding computers. According to the FBI, he told an agent and a police detective that he traveled to Yemen in February 2008 for two job interviews.

When he returned from Yemen, El-Hanafi "basically formed his own mini al-Qaida cell" by buying software that secured Internet communications and reaching out to others, including Hasanoff, who were sympathetic to the group, prosecutors said. He also was accused of supplying tens of thousands of dollars to al-Qaida and of buying seven Casio wristwatches that prosecutors claimed could be converted to detonation devices.

The investigation uncovered evidence that El-Hanafi and Hasanoff used code words on the Internet during 2009 about fighting jihad and making contact with al-Qaida. In their code language, "safari" was used in place of "jihad" and saying a friend was "hospitalized" meant that he was in prison.