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Some Minnesota Somalis fear indictments could hamper legitimate donations

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Hawo Hassan
Hawo Mohamed Hassan, 63, seen here in a July 2009 photo, was arrested Thursday along with friend Amina Farah Ali, and charged with providing material support to an organization in Somalia called al-Shabab, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Every month, officials at the Dawah Mosque in St. Paul have to make a $10,000 payment on the mosque's no-interest mortgage. That money usually comes in donations from hundreds of mosque members.

The Dawah's leader, Imam Hassan Mohamud, said that on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week women walking door to door collected $500 each day from Somali households. On Thursday, the women collected just $150.

That was the day the government charged two Rochester Somali women with raising money for the terrorist group al-Shabaab. Ten Minneapolis Somali men were indicted for fighting for the organization.

"People supposed to pay the donations are scared right now," said Mohamud. "Many people told them not to come back, which is part of the scary part, the implication that mosques will suffer during the month of Ramadan."

Mohamud said people are afraid their donations will look suspicious to the government.

There aren't many aid organizations on the ground in Somalia, so Somalis in the U.S. often depend on informal networks to get charitable contributions to that country. The Rochester women allegedly raised some money for al-Shabaab by going door to door, asking for donations to the poor and needy in Somalia.

Mohamud said that may make fewer people donate to charitable causes. He says it'll also affect mosques, because many depend almost entirely on donations from members, with a big boost coming at this time of the year. The Koran says it's especially important to contribute during Ramadan, Islam's holy month, which begins next week.

Mohamud says the indictments made some Somalis worry they couldn't trust people asking for donations. He's taking the unusal step of visiting families and businesses to reassure them the donations are going to the mosque.

" I was forced to do [this] because of what's going on right now," he said.

The indictment against the Rochester women threw another Somali community institution into question. It says the women sent money to al-Shabaab through a wire transfer service called a hawala.

Mukhtar Osman, a Somali native who works as a civil engineer in the Twin Cities, said most people use hawalas to send money directly to family or friends in Somalia who have been displaced by the civil war. He said Somalis here can't stop sending money, even if they're afraid the U.S. government will question them.

"They don't have anything else. They don't have anybody who is supporting [them] except you," Osman said.

It's unclear if concern about government surveillance is justified.

FBI spokesman Steve Warfield did not offer details about whether the investigation was likely to uncover a more extensive money-raising system or if the Rochester indictments represented isolated cases.

"I can't really get into that. This has been going on for a couple of years and we're going to stay on top of it," Warfield said.

B. Todd Jones, U.S. Attorney for the district of Minnesota, is also vague about the extent of the threat.

"I hope that it isn't the tip of the iceberg," Jones said. "We're making progress on a number of fronts, from an investigative front on a community awareness front, on an outreach front with the Somali community in Minnesota and I hope everyone just pulls together."

Mukhtar Osman and Imam Hassan Mohamud say they no know of no one who would support al-Shabaab. Mohamud says communication between the government and Somali community could be better. He says he and other imams met with the government three or four times last year.

"Whatever government is doing we need assurance that won't effect the legitimate activities that we send money back, and legitimate activities that we collect from the donors to help the activities of the mosques," Mohamud said.

Mohamud said he will pray during Ramadan for law enforcement to have a better understanding of the Somali community.