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FBI searches Rochester homes in Somali probe

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Hawo Hassan
Hawo Hassan, seated in her friend's living room, said eight FBI agents raided her Rochester apartment on July 13. Hassan said the agents took religious books from her apartment.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Earlier this month, FBI agents raided the apartments of two Rochester women who say they were collecting money and used clothing for poor people in their native Somalia.

One of the women says the agents told her they received a tip that she was supporting violent insurgents in Somalia. It's a claim she adamantly denies. Amina Ali, a U.S. citizen for five years, said the experience left her feeling shaken and violated.

Ali says when she came home from shopping on the afternoon of July 13, she found FBI agents and a translator in her apartment.

"The guy explained that they got a search warrant from the court, and they had the right to search my house," said Ali. "I was surprised at that moment that it was happening in my own home."

Ali lives in a sprawling complex of powder blue apartment buildings on the north side of Rochester. Her husband works as a lab assistant at the Mayo Clinic. 

She says when the agents came, her two young daughters, ages 6 and 7, waited in fear in a bedroom while the men searched under the beds and rummaged through cabinets. She says they took her laptop computer and several Islamic books, including the Quran.

She says when agents pulled her aside for questioning, they seemed especially interested in her volunteer work, and asked her if she ever sent clothes to Somalia.

Ali says she has. She says she regularly sends money and mails shipments of donated clothing to penniless refugees who are scrambling to escape the violence of her homeland. 

In fact, at the same time agents were searching her apartment, a small group of Somali women were folding donated clothes in two alley garages in Ali's apartment complex. Ali says she told the agents she was planning to ship two large containers of clothing to a refugee camp on the outskirts of Somalia's capital city.

Asmaa, Fadumasahara
Asmaa, 7, and her sister Fadumasahara, 6, were at home when FBI agents conducted a search of their Rochester apartment. Their mother, Amina Ali, said an agent told her the FBI had received a tip that she was supporting extremist insurgents in her native Somalia. The FBI has confirmed the search but declined to comment further.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"I explained to them that the reason I was doing this was because there's a civil war happening in my country," said Ali. "There were a lot of people displaced from their own homes, and going to refugee camps all over the continent of Africa, including outside of Mogadishu. So, my instincts told me it was my duty to help out the Somali poor people who left everything behind."

Ali says the agents told her to stop collecting clothes.

She says she would never support any group that would carry out violent attacks on her home country, or here in her adopted country. And while she has raised money for needy people in Somalia, she more often encourages individuals in Minnesota to wire the money themselves, she said.

The FBI confirmed that the agency executed the search warrant, and also confirmed that the raid was in connection to a far-reaching investigation into about 20 men who have disappeared from the Twin Cities. 

Authorities believe the young Somali-American men are fighting with an extremist militia called Al-Shabaab, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group.

This spring, federal authorities raided three money-wiring services in Minneapolis, and would not say whether that was linked to the investigation into the missing men.

The Villages apartment complex
FBI agents inspected an apartment and two garages in the Villages at Essex Park apartment complex in Rochester earlier this month, according to the woman whose apartment was searched. Amina Ali said she and her friends were using the garages to assemble containers of used clothing to send to refugees fleeing violence-stricken Mogadishu.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Amina Ali keeps the search warrant that the agents gave her folded in her purse. The document is vague, listing just her name and address. It offers no description of the items the agents were seeking, or an explanation behind the search. The document is under seal in federal court.

The same afternoon that Ali's home was raided, her friend, Hawo Hassan, says FBI agents were searching her Rochester apartment. Hassan was helping Ali with the clothing drive. She's also set up a shelter in Somalia for elderly poor people. 

Seated on Ali's couch, Hassan, who is also a U.S. citizen, points to her crude cardboard display filled with photographs of the people she's helped. She uses the display as a pitch when collecting money from her fellow Somali-Americans.

"This is home care. Homeless people," said Hassan. "They don't have shelter. They don't have food. No medicine. No relatives. No children. So we opened a home care in Somalia."

She taps on a picture of an old man squatting with a cane.

"You can see right now, this picture. They are suffering people," she said.

Hassan says the agents took away some of her religious texts. But she says they treated her with respect and empathy, so she didn't mind the intrusion.

But her friend, Amina Ali, says the experience changed the way she sees her place in the United States.

"I was very emotional. I never thought in my country of America they would show up in a person's house for no reason," said Ali.

While the FBI wouldn't comment on the Rochester raids, they've asked for the trust of Somalis in Minnesota as they continue to explore leads into how some young men were radicalized. Investigators are also believed to be interested in how the young men paid for the trips.

The agency says it's trying to build inroads with a community already skeptical and fearful of government.