Prosecutors say Rochester women knew they aided terrorists

Amina Farah Ali
Amina Farah Ali of Rochester, seen outside the federal courthouse in downtown St. Paul, on Monday, August 9, 2010, questioned the unnamed "conspirators" cited in the indictment against her during her arraignment. The judge interpreted her response as a plea of "not guilty."
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

In the eyes of the federal government, Amina Ali and Hawo Hassan knew al-Shabab was a terrorist group when they sent money to the Somali militia - and even "rejoiced" when they learned al-Shabab carried out a suicide bombing.

But Ali's attorney, Dan Scott, said his client had no idea al-Shabab was designated as a foreign terrorist organization until the government told her so.

Opening statements began Tuesday in Minneapolis in the trial of the two Rochester women, both U.S. citizens. Ali and Hassan are accused of conspiring to funnel money to al-Shabab by using donations collected from the Somali-American community in the name of humanitarian aid for their homeland. It's the first case to go to trial in the government's broader investigation of U.S. citizens' support for the terror group.

Dan Scott, Ali's attorney, described the defendants as formidable fund-raisers who filled two entire shipping containers of clothing for the suffering in Somalia.

"They have a built-in need to help, a built-in cultural imperative to help," he said.

But Jeffrey Paulsen, assistant U.S. attorney, said wiretaps of Ali's home and mobile phone lines tell a different story.

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Upon hearing news that al-Shabab had carried out a suicide bombing, "they rejoiced in it and would go out and raise more money to send to al-Shabab," Paulsen said.

"This is not a case about freedom of religion," Paulsen added. Aiding a foreign terrorist organization is against the law.

The government alleges Ali and Hassan raised money through door-to-door solicitations and teleconferences involving guest lecturers. While some of that money went to legitimate charities, about $8,600 was sent to al-Shabab through "hawalas," money-transfer businesses that the Somali diaspora uses to wire money back to their families, Paulsen said.

Ali arranged for the money to be wired, while Hassan was the bookkeeper, Paulsen said. The alleged conspiracy involved fake names and small sums of money to avoid raising suspicion.

The opening statements followed a rocky start to the trial, beginning with Ali's refusal to stand in court for the judge or jury during jury selection. Over the past two days, Judge Michael Davis has held her in contempt of court, ordering her to spend five days behind bars for each time she defies instructions to stand. Ali, who was previously free, must also spend the duration of the trial in jail.

"If you refuse to do something, you understand the consequences of that," Davis told her.

Ali reported a difficult first night at the Sherburne County jail. Through a Somali interpreter, she told Davis she was forcibly stripped and placed in a jumpsuit. She also reported that the guards were physically rough and took away her Muslim head covering. She has not been eating meals. Prosecutors say jail staff reported she was not following orders.

Davis said he would make sure her modesty is protected, but that the jail's security concerns will take precedence over her religious beliefs.

Both the government and Ali's defense attorney took pains to educate the all-White jury of 12 women and three men on the turbulent history of Somalia. The country has not had a working government in 20 years.

The prosecutor laid bare the harsh forms of punishment carried out by al-Shabab, such as stoning, suicide attacks and amputations. Ali's attorney countered that some of the insurgents were "freedom fighters" determined to fend off a military occupation by arch rival Ethiopia.

Outside the courtroom, Ali's friend, Kaltum Dualle, said her friend adheres to a rigid interpretation of Islam. Asked whether Ali was extreme in her views, Dualle said, "That question is difficult. Amina knows the Hadith and the Koran very well. She follows whatever they say."

But Dualle said she but does not believe her friend could support al-Shabab. Ali was motivated by helping others, she said.

"If someone is desperate, needs food, she tries to help, no matter if they're Christian or Muslim," Dualle said.

The trial could last up to three weeks. On Wednesday, the government plans to call as witnesses an FBI translator and Matt Bryden of the United Nations Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group.

Hawo Hassan's attorney plans to make his opening statement later in the trial.