Woman cleared of smuggling money for Syria in underwear
- 13 August 2014
- From the section UK
A woman accused of trying to smuggle 20,000 euros (£15,800) in her underwear to a Briton fighting in Syria has been found not guilty of funding terrorism.
Nawal Msaad, 27, from north London, was stopped at Heathrow Airport as she prepared to board a flight to Istanbul, Turkey, on 16 January.
Amal El-Wahabi, 27, who was accused of trying to get her to smuggle the money, was found guilty of funding terrorism.
Prosecutors said El-Wahabi's husband had joined rebels fighting in Syria.
Ms Msaad, who was a first year student at London Metropolitan University at the time of her arrest, had denied being an Islamist extremist, saying she had been duped by El-Wahabi.
She said she had hidden the cash to keep it safe - but said she had only put it under the waist strap of her leggings.
As she was acquitted, Ms Msaad sobbed in the dock, before running out of court.
Speaking outside London's Old Bailey, she said was was "relieved" but said she was "physically drained and mentally weak".
The jury found El-Wahabi guilty of persuading her friend to take the money to her husband by a majority verdict.
El-Wahabi began screaming after her conviction, forcing Judge Nicholas Hilliard to clear the court. She is due to be sentenced on 12 September and faces a maximum of 14 years in prison.
She is the first Briton to be convicted under terror laws of funding jihadist fighters in Syria.
Judge Hilliard told her it had been a "substantial amount of money destined for the hands of an extremist who was involved in violent jihad" and warned a custodial sentence appeared inevitable.
El-Wahabi's barrister had pleading for her client to be granted bail until sentencing to allow her to see her two young sons.
However, the judge turned down her appeal.
Prosecutors said that in 2013 El-Wahabi's husband, Aine Davis, had travelled to Syria to join jihadists fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
In January this year, Davis, also known as Hamza, asked his wife to arrange the delivery of cash to neighbouring Turkey.
The court heard El-Wahabi, a north London mother-of-two, texted her old school friend to see if she would act as a courier in return for a 1,000 euro payment.
Ms Msaad replied: "Whaaaay".
Bundle of cash
The jury heard that, after further discussion, the human resources student agreed to take the cash to Mr Davis and booked a flight to Istanbul.
However, when she went to board her flight at Heathrow Airport, police questioned her about the purpose of the trip.
Ms Msaad told them she was going for a short break and was carrying 20,000 euros "around me" so that she could buy gold for her mother.
Prosecutors say that when she was searched, she retrieved a tightly-wrapped bundle of cash from her underwear.
It was alleged Ms Msaad may well have further concealed it within her body inside a condom - something she denied.
Ms Msaad said she readily volunteered that she was carrying the cash and didn't want to conceal what she was doing.
Almost all of the bundle was 500 euro notes, which are banned in the UK in an effort to combat money laundering by drugs gangs.
Ms Msaad, who was also facing a maximum sentence of 14 years, was often photographed turning up at court wearing short skirts and other fashionable ensembles, making no attempt to hide the electronic tag on her ankle.
She denied planning to fund jihadists - and said she had believed the cash was part of El-Wahabi's plan to move to Turkey to join her husband.
The student said she assumed acting as a personal courier was cheaper than using a currency transfer service - and that she was embarrassed that she had used a condom to keep it safe.
"She [El-Wahabi] wasn't completely honest with me about where the money came from," said Ms Msaad told the trial.
"And so I do get that feeling, I'm not going to deny that… the feeling that I have been stitched up. I had no intention to smuggle money into Turkey."
Ms Msaad, whose family were originally from Morocco, said she considered herself Muslim but was not particularly religious. She said she had no strong political views and had not read jihadist literature.
In many terrorism cases, prosecutors often present evidence of an extremist mindset gleaned by police from forensic examinations of mobile phones and computers.
In Ms Msaad's case, her Facebook profile was focused on socialising with friends at parties and festivals.
In one Twitter picture she had given her electronic bail tag a designer touch by attaching a Chanel logo.
After her release from prison on bail in March, she published on YouTube a cover version of a Jennifer Lopez song, protesting that she was the "same girl" who'd been let down by fake friends.
She also posted a statement on Facebook denying the allegations, saying: "At no point did I try to conceal the money from the police, I volunteered the amount of money I was taking."
"I can't help but wonder if I had been called Natalie from Surrey whether the authorities would have presented terrorism charges against me."
The court heard that Aine Davis was a former drug dealer with a conviction for possessing a firearm.
He had subsequently converted to Islam, taking the name Hamza, and travelled widely in the Middle East before joining an aid convoy in Syria last year.
When police searched El-Wahabi's home, they said they found extremist material, including material on a mobile phone relating to the main Syrian jihadist group, then called Isis.
El-Wahabi told the court she had never watched extremist material and the money she asked Ms Msaad to take to Turkey was from Davis' former drug dealing life.
Mark Summers, defending her, told the jury they would never see a more unlikely terrorist come before them.
However, the jury was also shown a "selfie" Davis had sent El-Wahabi, as well as videos containing jihadist propaganda and a stream of Skype messages between the couple.
Prosecutor Mark Dennis QC told the court it was "plain from images that he had sent to her that [Mr] Davis had fulfilled his desire and was now with jihadist fighters".
The jury was shown a stream of Skype texts between the couple in which El-Wahabi initially complained of being lonely and begged him to come back.