A massive terrorism investigation reached deeper into Minnesota Thursday.
Federal officials in Washington, D.C., announced the indictments of 14 people -- including 12 Minnesotans -- for allegedly providing support to a Somali terrorist organization with ties to Al-Qaida. That number includes two Rochester women who were arrested at their homes Thursday morning.
Amina Farah Ali, 33, and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, 63, both naturalized American citizens, are the first women to be charged in what has been called one of the most sweeping counterterrorism investigations since the attacks of 9/11. They have been charged with fundraising for Al-Shabab, which the United States has classified as a terrorist organization.
Attorney General Eric Holder said of the charges: "These indictments and arrests -- in Minnesota, Alabama and California -- shed further light on a deadly pipeline that has routed funding and fighters to Al-Shabab from cities across the United States."
That pipeline has led directly to Minnesota, where at least 20 young local Somalis have been recruited by Al-Shabab to go overseas and fight. Five have since died in Somalia's civil war. Another Minneapolis man, a convert to Islam, was killed. Five others have pleaded guilty to charges in connection to the case. Another sits in jail in the Netherlands, awaiting extradition.
According to the indictments unsealed Thursday, Hassan and Ali communicated by phone with members of Al-Shabab in Somalia and then worked to raise money for the group here in Minnesota.
Advertising that their fundraising was to help the poor and needy in their homeland, the women went door-to-door to raise funds. They also tapped into teleconferences -- group chat lines used by the Somali community to share news. Sometimes, investigators said, the women were more brazen, openly appealing for money to support Al-Shabab and its work to further violent jihad, or holy war.
A Minneapolis businessman who did not wish to be named for fear of reprisal said the women were well known within the local Somali community. He said they often visited Somali shopping malls and housing complexes in the Twin Cities and Rochester, seeking donations of clothing to send to Somalia. Then they would ask for $25 in cash to pay for shipping the clothes, the man said.
He gave several times, he said, but stopped when he suspected their efforts were not legitimate.
According to the indictment, the women transmitted funds to Somalia using several money-wiring companies in Minnesota. The women used 12 money transfers to wire more than $8,600 to Al-Shabab in 2008 and 2009, the FBI said.
The women apparently have been under investigation for quite a while. On July 14, 2009, the day after the FBI searched her Rochester home, Ali allegedly contacted an unindicted co-conspirator and said: "I was questioned by the enemy here. ... they took all my stuff and are investigating it. ... Do not accept calls from anyone."
The indictment also alleges that Hassan lied when questioned by federal agents.
The women made an initial appearance in federal court in St. Paul on Thursday. During her appearance, Ali was asked to tell the truth about her finances. "I will tell the truth because I will never lie in the face of God," she said.
Both women were later released. If convicted, they face up to 15 years in prison.
Farhiyo Mohamed, Hassan's niece, disputed the charges.
She said her aunt "is a very busy woman" who runs a day-care business and raises money for a Somali charity on the side. The money she raises goes to a shelter for elderly people in Somalia to buy food and medicine, she said, not to Al-Shabab.
Mohamed said other Somali women have told lies to the FBI.
"I heard some ladies snitched. They made up some stories about my mom and this other lady," Mohamed said. "Sometimes they just make up this stuff to get money."
She said the FBI came to her aunt's home last summer, asking many questions and taking things -- her aunt's computer, a notebook and a Qur'an.
Across town, Ali's former neighbors said the FBI last summer removed boxes, clothes and rugs from Ali's garage. They said she moved away last month.
Mohamed said her aunt, whom she calls "mom" because she raised her after her parents died, "hates Al-Shabab because what they do is not right. She would never help out people like that."
Arrests should be a warning
Holder said Thursday's arrests should serve as "an unmistakable warning to others considering joining or supporting terrorist groups like Al-Shabab: If you choose this route, you can expect to find yourself in a U.S. jail cell or a casualty on the battlefield in Somalia."
In addition to the charges against the women, another Minnesota indictment identifies five people who previously had not been charged by a grand jury that has been investigating the case for more than a year.
Abdikadir Ali Abdi, Abdisalan Hussein Ali, Farah Mohamed Beledi, Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax and Abdiweli Yassin Isse all are charged with providing material support to those who traveled to Somalia to fight with Al-Shabab. Previously, Faarax and Isse had been charged by the U.S. attorney's office. Faarax is considered to have been a key recruiter in the Minneapolis area.
Some of the men indicted Thursday had been charged previously in connection with an investigation that began several years ago, after young Somali men from Minnesota started secretly slipping away from their families.
Five other men with Minnesota ties who previously had been indicted or charged were also renamed Thursday as part of a process called superseding indictments.
Bombing intensified probe
Investigators already had been looking into reports of missing Somali men from Minneapolis when bomb blasts in northern Somalia in October 2008 added new urgency. Shirwa Ahmed, an American citizen who attended high school and college in Minneapolis, killed himself as part of a series of coordinated suicide bombing attacks that killed 28 people.
Ahmed's death immediately heightened fears in the U.S. intelligence community that other Somali men who left the United States to train and fight with a terrorist group might return and carry out an attack here.
While FBI officials say they've found no evidence of planned attacks on U.S. soil, investigators learned that many of the men who left here were indeed trained to fight in Somalia.
Over the next year, investigators say, more than a dozen young local men were seduced to the cause of fighting for Al-Shabab, a group the State Department said is aligned with Al-Qaida.
Two other indictments were announced Thursday by the Justice Department.
In Alabama, officials charged Omar Shafik Hammami, a U.S. citizen and former resident of Alabama, with providing material support to Al-Shabab. Hammami has become something of a YouTube phenomenon, appearing in Al-Shabab recruiting and training videos.
In California, prosecutors unsealed an October 2009 indictment against Jehad Serwan Mostafa, a U.S. citizen and former resident of San Diego. He offered himself as a fighter for Al-Shabab and is believed to be in Somalia.
Abdirizak Bihi, an uncle to one of the young Minneapolis men who was killed in Somalia, said Thursday that the threat of young Somalis leaving to fight in their homeland is constant.
"Everybody is trying to turn the other cheek and waiting for this to go away," he said.
But it won't, he added, until local communities find a way to keep disillusioned young Somalis from being seduced by Al-Shabab.
"This thing will go on if we don't engage the youth and find resources to engage the youth," he said. "If we don't, somebody else will."