A federal jury in Minneapolis today convicted two Rochester women of diverting money to a terrorist group in their native Somalia.
It was the first case to go to trial as part of the federal government's broader efforts to prosecute Minnesotans charged with supporting the terrorist group al-Shabab.
After deliberating for about 20 hours, the jury found Amina Farah Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan guilty on several charges, including conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization.
After the verdict was read, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis asked Ali if she had anything to say. Ali had a mouthful.
Through a court-appointed translator, she said she was happy because she knew she was going to heaven. Those who were against Muslims, she said, were going to hell.
"You guys think you're the powerful people in the world, but God is the most powerful, and he's in control," she said, according to the translator.
Ali's comments capped a dramatic three-week trial that centered on 10 months of recorded phone conversations of Ali and her bookkeeper Hassan. The two women raised money in the local Somali communities, ostensibly for poor people and orphans in their war-torn homeland.
The jury found that Ali steered $8,600 dollars to al-Shabab, a group that is trying to topple the weak Somali government through suicide bombings and other atrocities.
No one accused the women, both U.S. citizens, of trying to do harm against the United States. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Paulsen said that was beside the point.
"People subject to U.S. law cannot send money to al-Shabab. It's as simple as that," he said. "These women chose to put themselves above the law, and send money to al-Shabab for their own reasons. Because that's illegal, the case was brought, and the jury said today we proved our case."
Paulsen emphasized that the case was only about the two women, and was never about their faith or culture.
"Today's verdict reaffirms the principle that people who live within our borders must obey our laws," he said.
During the trial, prosecutors played recordings of phone calls between Ali and an al-Shabab leader. In a conversation Ali had with Hassan, Ali said when doling out the donations, priority should go to those standing up for Islam. She said in Somali, "Let the civilians die."
But outside the courthouse, several dozen Somali-American supporters refused to believe Ali and Hassan gave money to an extremist group responsible for so much of the misery of their own people.
Many of the backers, including a tearful Ubah Jama, 30, of Eden Prairie and her friends, were women who participated in religious classes taught by Ali over teleconference.
"I am crying because it's unfair, truly unfair," Jama said. "This is discrimination because of our color, because of our religion."
Abdinasir Abdi of Minneapolis also was dismayed by the verdict. He described the defendants as two great women who built wells and orphanages in Somalia. Abdi said FBI tactics revealed at trial worry some community members.
"A lot of people are fearful their phones are being listened to," Abdi said. "We are Somali people, we talk about politics all the time. And if our phones are being monitored, the community is not feeling safe."
It's not clear whether the views of Abdi and other supporters are representative of those in the broader Somali community. Other community members said they supported the verdict, and were taken aback by what they considered to be extreme statements the women uttered in the recorded phone calls.
Another community member, Dahir Jibreel, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, said he has faith in the American judicial system. The case has provided clarity on U.S. terrorism laws, he said.
"The Somalis who are here have nothing to fear if they follow the system," Jibreel said. "On the other hand, the larger community of Minnesotans should view this as an individual case. It should not be seen as a widespread community problem."
During closing arguments Monday, Amina Ali's attorney said it was understandable that his client, after watching 20 years of civil war in her homeland, latched onto al-Shabab for patriotic and religious reasons. The attorney, Dan Scott, maintained that the government failed to prove Ali knew the United States had designated the militia as a terrorist organization, in February 2008.
Ali's formidable fund-raising efforts assisting the needy in Somalia preceded that designation, Scott said. Ali, he said, was supporting the fighters as a result of the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. Many Somalis worldwide were outraged by the occupation by their longtime enemy.
Tom Kelly, an attorney representing Hawo Hassan, said during trial that the mother and adult daycare worker was also convinced that the insurgency in her homeland was waged by "freedom fighters." Hassan also trusted that al-Shabab could help deliver aid to the wounded and poor, Kelly said.
After the verdict, Kelly told reporters he believed the trial was fair. He said Hassan, who was seen smiling during the court proceedings, is taking things in stride.
"She seems to be at peace with things right now," he said. "She's a deeply religious woman and puts a lot of trust in Allah, and there's a lesson to be learned there."
Kelly said he will wait until sentencing before deciding whether to appeal. Hassan, 64, faces up to 31 years in prison for the conspiracy charge and making false statements to the FBI. She'll be sent to a halfway house pending sentencing and will be subject to electronic monitoring.
Ali, 35, was convicted of the lion's share of the charges. She faces up to 195 years in prison. Judge Davis told her she would be immediately taken into custody, but her religious customs would be accommodated.
No date has been scheduled for sentencing, and prosecutors declined to say what they would seek.
The government has charged 20 people with Minnesota ties as part of a massive investigation into the recruitment and financing of al-Shabab. About two dozen young Twin Cities men are believed to have left for Somalia to join the group as fighters.
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