Saturday, October 22, 2011

Found guilty of raising money for Somali terrorists, Minnesotan lashes out at ... - Pioneer Press

Amina Farah Ali's defiance seemed in inverse proportion to her stature.

Moments after a federal jury in Minneapolis found the diminutive Rochester, Minn., woman and her co-defendant, Hawo Mohamed Hassan, guilty Thursday of raising money for the group al-Shabaab, Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis called Ali to the podium and asked if she had anything to tell him.

Speaking through an interpreter, the woman who had spent the first two days of her trial refusing to stand when court was gaveled to order gave the judge an earful, telling him she thought she'd been denied justice.

Her slight voice barely audible, she harangued the judge but said she wasn't mad. She spoke of how she was going to heaven, how Westerners were against Muslims and then said in her southern Somali dialect, "Dhamaantiina waxaad aadaysaan naarta."

"You are all going to hell," the stunned court translator interpreted for the record.

Davis heard her out, then ordered deputy U.S. marshals to take Ali, 35, and Hassan, 64, into custody. He told Hassan he'd allow her to await sentencing in a halfway house.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, each woman faces a maximum 30 years in prison. If Davis sends them to prison, they will become the third and fourth Somali women serving time in a federal penitentiary.

The jury of 10 women and two men deliberated 18-1/2 hours over four days, then found the Rochester women guilty of conspiracy to provide material support to al-Shabaab. The

Islamic group opposes Somalia's U.N.-backed transitional federal government, and the U.S. State Department designated it a foreign terrorist organization in February 2008.

The designation made it illegal for U.S. citizens to provide aid.

Ali, married and a mother of two, also was convicted on 12 counts of providing material support to the group. Those counts stemmed from $8,608 she sent or had others send to al-Shabaab members between September 2008 and July 2009.

As al-Shabaab's financing goes, the women's fundraising was miniscule. A July report by the U.N. group that monitors the arms sanctions against Somalia estimated al-Shabaab generates up to $100 million a year through taxation, extortion, commerce, "diaspora support" and other sources.

Besides the conspiracy charge, Hassan - married and a mother of nine - also was found guilty of two counts of lying to the FBI.

The women never denied raising the money. They said it was for orphans, the poor and the families of militants in their native Somalia. The East African country of 9 million has been left a shambles after more than two decades of civil war, coups, fighting among clans, failed attempts to form governments and, most recently, a drought that has led to famine.


A crowd of 150 or more Somalis gathered on the plaza in front of the U.S. District Courthouse in downtown Minneapolis before the verdict. But only a few got into the courtroom to hear the jury's decision - a contrast to the trial itself, in which the courtroom was often nearly full of Somali women and a handful of men.

Security inside Davis' courtroom was intense. Thirteen deputy U.S. marshals sat a few feet from the defendants, each dressed in black hijabs and khimars.

When Ali and Hassan entered the courtroom and headed for their attorneys' tables, one deputy stopped them; he relented when another deputy told him they were the defendants.

On the plaza outside the courthouse, supporters lined up to pray a few minutes before the verdicts were read, shortly before noon. When they learned of the guilty verdicts, some women broke into tears while some men shouted, "This is injustice."

"We are not feeling safe. They - the FBI - come knocking on our doors," said Liban Haji, of Minneapolis. "There are no al-Shabaab in Minnesota. No one can say al-Shabaab is here."


Kamiliya Sheikh, a student at Inver Hills Community College, said she had followed the case closely and said that while she abhors al-Shabaab for killing innocent people, she questioned the prosecution of the two women.

"It's not a crime to help people," she said.

Others took a more faithful view of the verdicts, relying on the Muslim belief that everything that happens is God's will and that humans can neither know what it is or change it.

"Whatever happened, it's written by God. Whatever happened, we respect, but we know there is no justice," said Umu Mohamed, also of Minneapolis, a regular among the women who gathered at the courthouse each day since jurors began deliberating Monday afternoon.

But the government's lead prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Paulsen, said the case wasn't about religion or anyone else in the Somali community. It was, he said, a case about two women who knowingly broke the law. "People subject to U.S. laws cannot send money to al-Shabaab. It's as simple as that," he said.

Al-Shabaab controls much of the southern part of Somalia. The putative power is the transitional government, which controls a small area of the capital, Mogadishu.

Al-Shabaab's opposition to the government stems, in part, from its belief the U.N.-backed regime was orchestrated by neighboring Ethiopia, Somalia's longtime enemy. Al-Shabaab issued a call for fighters after the government brought in troops from Ethiopia to retake the capital, and then later brought in troops from Uganda and Burundi.

Many Somalis viewed the Ethiopians as invaders, a sentiment al-Shabaab used to gain limited popular support. That support waned, though, after the group's repeated use of suicide bombers and their ban on humanitarian aid meant to stem a spreading famine.

In August, the U.N. estimated that 29,000 children younger than age 5 had died in southern Somalia, and that 3.7 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance nationwide.


Testimony at trial lasted seven days. The government called six witnesses, but its most damning testimony came from the women themselves, in the form of 91 phone calls that Paulsen and Justice Department lawyer Steven Ward introduced as evidence.

The FBI's Rochester office, acting on a tip from agents in Washington, began to investigate Ali in May 2008. By mid-September, they had obtained approval of a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court to tap Ali's two phones. Over the next 10 months, agents recorded almost 30,000 of her calls.

The conversations were in Somali and jurors followed along with English transcripts. The calls included teleconferences the women held to raise money; some had hundreds of listeners in this country and Canada.


Although the women never spoke of raising money for weapons, some of the calls were disturbing. In an October 2008 call to her co-defendant, Ali said they should concentrate their fundraising efforts for those fighting the transitional government. "Who has the priority?" Ali told Hassan. "Let the civilians die. Sister, let the civilians die."

Twenty-six of the calls played for the jury were between Ali and Hassan Afgoye, an unindicted co-conspirator who the government said was an al-Shabaab financial representative.

Ali and Hassan have long been fundraisers for people in their homeland, and that was the crux of their defense. Ali called four witnesses, and Hassan called three.

The government acknowledged some money they raised went to the needy and orphans; Islam considers it a major sin to take property meant for orphans. The defense contended anyone wanting to send humanitarian aid to Somalia had to deal with al-Shabaab because it controls the southern part of the country.

Even an FBI agent who investigated the case conceded on cross-examination, "Well, there's the old axiom that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

Mukhtar Ibrahim contributed to this report. David Hanners can be reached at 612-338-6516.

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