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By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Somali man alleged to have served as a high-level liaison between al Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen who became a U.S. government witness has pleaded guilty to multiple U.S. terrorism-related charges, the Justice Department said on Monday.
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan announced they had unsealed a guilty plea by Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame to nine U.S. criminal charges. They alleged he once commanded "hundreds" of fighters for the Somalia-based militant group Al-Shabaab.
Prosecutors said that Warsame's guilty plea was actually made in secret on December 21, 2011. But the records were sealed as a result of what the government described as a "cooperation agreement" between Warsame and U.S. authorities.
Although the maximum sentence Warsame could receive for his guilty plea is life in prison, customarily prosecutors agree to request a reduction in sentence for suspects who cooperate extensively with investigators.
A law enforcement official said the case had been unsealed because investigators felt that keeping it secret would no longer potentially compromise ongoing investigations. It was unclear when Warsame will be sentenced.
A Justice Department spokesman said that Warsame had begun cooperating with U.S. authorities after he was captured by U.S. military forces in April 2011. For the next two months, the official said, he was questioned "for intelligence purposes."
A law enforcement official said these interrogations were conducted while Warsame was held aboard a U.S. military ship sailing off the coast of Africa.
Subsequently, the Justice Department said in a press release, Warsame was read his Miranda rights. But after waiving those rights, he continued to cooperate with U.S. investigators, the department said.
The law enforcement official said that in addition to leading and training Shabaab fighters, Warsame also served as a liaison between the Somalia-based militant group and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a Yemen-based group which U.S. authorities consider to be perhaps Al Qaeda's most dangerous affiliate.
The Justice Department said that Warsame had received explosives training "directly from members of AQAP," which he then intended to share with al-Shabaab upon his return to Somalia.
The Justice Department said that among the charges in the nine-count indictment to which Warsame pleaded guilty were providing material support to both Al Shabaab and AQAP, as well as conspiring to teach and demonstrate the making of explosives and possessing firearms and explosives including machine guns.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Cynthia Osterman)