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Listen Reporter Laura Yuen discusses her exclusive interview with the two Somali women arrested this week for sending money to a terrorist group
The arrests of Amina Farah Ali, 33, and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, 63, have shocked the Somali community in Rochester.
Many people knew they collected money and clothing to send to refugees back home. Some had also heard investigators had searched their homes last year as part of a larger FBI probe.
Still, the arrests came as a surprise to many.
"People are shocked and afraid," said Abdifatah Abdinur, the executive director of New Faces of America, a non-profit organization in Rochester that addresses issues immigrants face. He said some Somalis in Rochester he's spoken to say they're afraid they might be accused of something similar.
But, he adds that many also feel strongly that anyone helping al-Shabaab should be prosecuted.
"At the same time, people understand the importance of the system working for everyone in this country," Abdinur said. "They're glad anybody who's doing any harm to the Somali community, here or back home, or anybody who is affiliated with any terrorist network, should face the system and have their day in court."
Ali and Hassan were arrested Thursday and later released on bond. Hassan, who works as a day-care provider in Rochester, insisted on her innocence and told reporters in St. Paul she has done nothing wrong.
"I'm not terrorist, I told you already, we are Muslim people, we're not terrorism, we're not guilty people, we are innocent people," Hassan said.
Leaders in Rochester's Somali community say Ali was known as the go-to person if local Somalis had clothes or other goods to donate. She and Hassan are the only women charged in a case that now has 21 defendants from at least three different states.
In MPR interviews in 2009, the women were open about their efforts to collect money and used clothing to send to Somalia to benefit needy refugees try to escape the violence there.
But U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday said that Ali and Hassan lied about why they were collecting money and clothing. He said instead of helping the poor, they were helping al-Shabaab.
"We are seeing an increasing number of individuals, including U.S. citizens, who have become captivated by extremist ideology and have taken steps to carry out terrorist objectives, either at home or abroad," Holder said at a press conference.
The indictment alleges that these two women -- who are both naturalized U.S. citizens -- raised money to support al-Shabaab. They did so through door-to-door solicitations and teleconferences in Somali communities in Minneapolis, Rochester and other locations in the United States and Canada.
The indictments cited 12 money transfers to al-Shabaab in 2008 and 2009 totaling more that $8,000.
Up until last summer, Ali lived at the Villages of Essex Park, a sprawling apartment complex in Northwest Rochester with many Somali residents.
On Thursday afternoon, some of the residents at the apartment complex expressed distress at the news of the arrests.
Sahra Hussein, 33, lives in the apartment complex with her four children. She said she had never met or donated money to either Ali or Hassan, but she had heard about the FBI probe last year.
"It saddens me at some point, to have someone accused of my race or my culture, or anybody for that matter," Hussein said.
Hussein said the arrests further weaken legitimate efforts to help needy Somalis, as well an already strained image of Somali and Somali-Americans living in the U.S.
"It doesn't do any good for anybody helping terrorism organizations when they're supposed to be helping people in need," she said. "It might make things hard for anybody that was going to do a good cause or to help somebody. Basically, it's just sad."
A federal court judge released both Hassan and Ali after prosecutors said they did not object to the arrangement. The next court appearance in the case will be Monday, August 9.
(MPR reporters Elizabeth Dunbar and Stephanie Hemphill contributed to this report.)