They were a regular sight among the dimly lit stalls of the Somali shopping malls and the narrow hallways of the high-rise apartment towers in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood known as Little Mogadishu.
Two conservatively dressed women -- one older, one younger -- often carrying pictures of destitute grandfathers or desperate children to make their pleas more poignant.
Few questioned their work. After all, charity is an obligation, a virtue among the Muslim faithful. Even the poorest of those solicited found a way to spare a few dollars.
But it was all a ruse, the FBI said late last week as the two were indicted in a vast anti-terrorism investigation, the largest since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The women, Amina Farah Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan of Rochester, collected cash not for poverty-stricken grandparents, but for the violent terrorist organization Al-Shabab, the FBI says. Al-Shabab, which is tied to Al-Qaida, has trained foreign fighters and carried out suicide bombings.
How did the two women manage to conceal what the FBI said was their true intent as they sought donations in the Minnesota Somali community, the largest outside of Somalia?
Women collecting for charity, area Somalis say, would have provided the perfect cover.
In a culture where females are the most devoted keepers of causes and the most trusted couriers of cash, local Somalis say women collecting for charities is common. These women in particular -- pious, hard-working, bold -- would not have been doubted, said Abdifatah Abdinur, a Rochester community leader.
"Women are the backbone of the Somali community; they do these things," Abdinur said. "But this is the first time anyone has heard of them doing something wrong."
Federal officials in Washington, D.C., on Thursday announced the fresh indictments of 14 people -- including 12 Minnesotans -- for allegedly providing support to the Al-Shabab Somali terrorist organization. Hassan and Ali were among them. Most had been indicted or charged before, or were living abroad.
Those indictments were the latest developments in two years of anxiety and tragedy among Minnesota's estimated 50,000 Somalis as a small number have been lured into the influence of Al-Shabab. During that time, 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 with the case. Another sits in jail in the Netherlands, awaiting extradition.
But the indictment of Hassan and Ali is an entirely new twist. In Little Mogadishu, many are trying to piece together how the two managed to operate among them for so long, raising few suspicions.
A financial pipeline
According to the indictment unsealed against the women Thursday, they contributed to a pipeline of cash to Al-Shabab.
From Sept. 17, 2008 through July 19, 2009, the FBI said, Ali and Hassan raised and sent thousands of dollars to Somalia to support the Islamist extremist group.
Ali, 33, Hassan, 63, and others went door-to-door among Somalis in Rochester, Minneapolis and elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada. Sometimes they made open appeals for support of violent jihad, the FBI said. More often, they claimed they were raising money for the poor.
Hassan, who runs a day care business, and Ali, who works in home health care, have reputations as honest, industrious women, Abdinur said. They claimed, he said, to be sending money to refugee camps south of Mogadishu -- outside the control of Al-Shabab.
Money from Somalis in the U.S. provides a much-needed lifeline to relatives left behind in their war-torn homeland, Abdinur said. Contributions to legitimate causes have built hospitals, schools and homes.
Farhiyo Mohamed, Hassan's niece, was raised by her after her parents died and calls her "mom." She said Hassan knew exactly who was receiving the money she sent. She added that she has no doubts they were supporting real causes, noting that the man who received the money sent back photos of people with new beds, clothes and furniture.
"It's wonderful what they are doing," she said. "I'm really proud of them."
Somalis in the Twin Cities said the women often canvassed the malls and apartment buildings, asking first for donations of clothing. Then, before leaving, they would ask for $25 -- cash only -- to pay for shipping.
But, according to the FBI, Ali and Hassan were paying for something more sinister. Using several local wire transfer businesses, Ali sent money to bank accounts controlled by Al-Shabab, following instructions from several co-conspirators in Somalia. Sometimes, according to the indictment, she made up the names of people who were to receive the funds to help hide the money trail, the FBI said.
Once, the FBI said, Ali told Hassan that the "purpose of the fundraising was to support Al-Shabab, by stating, 'We are with the Youth.'" Al-Shabab in Arabic means "the youth."
In all, the FBI alleges that Ali and Hassan made 12 wire transfers totaling more than $8,600 to Al-Shabab -- a rather modest sum in the arena of international terrorism, but indicative of the high concern that officials working to thwart terrorism place on any interaction with Al-Shabab.
In many ways, the tactics allegedly used by the women mirrored those of the young Minnesota men who went to Somalia to train and fight with Al-Shabab.
Many of those men and boys raised money for their travels by going to malls and high-rises and asking for cash to help the poor or to pay for religious education.
In fact, going door to door collecting money for various causes has been widespread in Minnesota's Somali communities, say local Somalis.
Women lead the charge, carrying buckets and targeting areas like the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood and other densely populated Somali enclaves.
"You'd throw them a dollar or two," said Fartun Ahmed, the youth director at Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. "The majority was women because women were trusted more."
She added: "It's totally normal. Nobody would've been surprised or think this is for terrorism."
Earlier indictments and Thursday's arrests of the two Rochester women may put a damper on collections for legitimate causes, Ahmed said. She said she has not seen anyone out and about seeking donations in the past year.
On Friday afternoon, however, it was clear that Somalis have not turned away from giving altogether. The ubiquitous signs of charity had not disappeared.
At the Karmel Square mall in south Minneapolis, one of the largest local Somali malls, several shopkeepers displayed boxes on their counters asking for donations. Photos of barefoot children and sickly elders adorned the locked boxes.
James Walsh • 612-673-7428 Allie Shah • 612-673-4488