The trial of two Minnesota women accused of funneling money to a terror group is being closely watched by members of the state's Somali community, with many saying it is breeding mistrust in an immigrant population already fearful of government.
Hundreds of hours of secretly recorded phone calls are the key evidence against Amina Farah Ali, 35, and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, 64. Prosecutors say the women passed themselves off as charity fundraisers when they were really part of a "deadly pipeline" that routed money and fighters from the U.S. to Somalia.
Ali and Hassan are among 20 people charged in Minnesota's long-running federal investigations into recruiting and financing for al-Shabab, which the U.S. considers a terror group with ties to al-Qaida. During those investigations, authorities sought help and tips from Somalis in Minneapolis, which is the nation's largest Somali community.
The FBI says outreach efforts have paid off. But some say the trial has renewed suspicions all over again.
Grow the Future of Public Media
MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!
"We are back to square one," said Omar Jamal, a longtime advocate for Somalis in Minnesota and first secretary for the Somali mission to the U.N. in New York. "The mistrust between them (Somalis) and the government has gone way beyond what they can ever imagine. People are thinking, 'My God, phones were tapped!'"
Ali and Hassan are charged with conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. Ali also faces 12 counts of providing such support, while Hassan faces two counts of lying to the FBI.
The women claim they were collecting money for charity, something some of their supporters continue to believe.
"She supported the orphans," Kaltun Dualle said of her friend, Ali. "She never supported the al-Qaida."
Prosecutors spent days playing excerpts from calls recorded during a 10-month wiretap on Ali's phones. In those calls, the women discuss sending money to fighters in Somalia, according to prosecutors.
In one call, Ali allegedly says: "Let the civilians die!" And in one religious teleconference, she says: "Let's forget about the other charities -- how about the jihad?" The recorded calls are in Somali and jurors followed along with English transcripts provided by the government.
It's been hard for some Somalis to listen. Some say they are now afraid their own conversations are being recorded. And while dozens of Somalis -- mostly women -- have flocked to court each day, many told The Associated Press they were afraid that by showing up, they might also get into trouble.
Kyle Loven, FBI spokesman in Minneapolis, said that in general, investigators don't listen in on phone conversations unless they can prove there is probable cause that someone is doing something illegal. It's up to the court to decide whether or not to allow a wiretap. Loven declined to talk specifically about Ali and Hassan because the case is ongoing.
"The FBI simply doesn't do these things on its own accord," Loven said. "We have to demonstrate to the court that we should be allowed to do this surveillance. ... When it comes to investigations in general, we follow the facts, and wherever the facts lead us, that's where it's going to go."
And some Somalis say the calls have led them to question the women's activities.
Osman Bagane, of Minneapolis, is among those who said he was saddened by a transcript that appeared to show the women celebrating a deadly explosion in the area of Mogadishu where he grew up.
"I was too upset and I was confused," he said. He said he doesn't understand why people who proclaim support for the women don't feel the way he does.
Others, however, continue to support the women.
Abdinasir Abdi, of Minneapolis, said Ali and Hassan were humanitarians. Abdi said the fact that the women were collecting money in 2005 and 2006 shows they were doing it for the good of Somalis and for orphans.
Al-Shabab, first seen by many as a group of fighters who were trying to oust an Ethiopian army occupying Somalia, wasn't declared a foreign terrorist organization until 2008.
"These were two women who knew how to collect and send donations to Africa, to Somalia and to the orphans," he said. "It's very shameful for the government of the United States to take two women ... to be brought to court and be accused of all these things."
Abdi also said he wonders why the government began investigating the women. An FBI agent testified that officials received a tip from FBI headquarters that the women were communicating with al-Shabab members.
Jamal said it's up to the jury to decide whether the women are guilty or innocent. But for now, he said, it seems the women are victims of the situation in post-war Somalia.
"Obviously some very dangerous and concerning statements were made on those calls," Jamal said. "I hope the jury will ... consider every bit of evidence."
Closing arguments are set to begin Monday.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)