ST. PAUL, Minn. – Two Minnesota women received a show of support from fellow Somali women on Monday as they pleaded not guilty to charges alleging they helped raise money for an al-Qaida-linked terrorist group by falsely telling donors the funds would go to the poor in their homeland.
Amina Farah Ali, 33, and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, 63, both of Rochester, Minn., were arraigned before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Keyes. He set a trial date of Oct. 12, but prosecutors said that may change.
About 30 Somali women, wearing traditional veils, filled Keyes' courtroom for the hearing. Beforehand, about a dozen Somali women, mostly from Rochester, demonstrated outside the courthouse.
Ali and Hassan women were among 14 people named in indictments unsealed last Thursday in Minnesota, San Diego and Mobile, Ala. They're accused of being part of a pipeline that routed money and fighters from the United States to the Somali insurgent faction al-Shabab. The U.S. has declared al-Shabab to be a terrorist group with ties to al-Qaida.
Ali's reply when Keyes asked for her plea wasn't entirely clear, but Keyes said he took it to mean not guilty. Hassan replied in English, "I'm not guilty."
Defense attorneys Dan Scott, who's represents Ali, and Andrea George, representing Hassan, declined to comment on the charges after the hearing.
The two women are both charged with conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. Ali is also charged with 12 counts of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, while Hassan is charged with three counts of lying to the FBI.
The indictment alleges they went door to door in Rochester, Minneapolis and other cities in the U.S. and Canada to raise money for al-Shabab's operations in Somalia, and falsely claimed the donations would go to the needy, it alleges. They also allegedly held teleconferences to make direct appeals for support for al-Shabab. Ali is accused of sending a total of $8,608 to al-Shabab from September 2008 through July 2009, the indictment says.
Ali and Hassan, who are U.S. citizens, remain free but can't travel outside of Minnesota without permission. They are the only two of the 14 defendants currently in the United States. The rest are out of the country, including 10 men from Minnesota who allegedly went back to Somalia to join al-Shabab. Seven of those 10 were also charged earlier in the investigation.
During a quiet demonstration before the arraignment, Hodan Abdulle, of Rochester, said Ali and Hassan were engaged in legitimate aid efforts for the poor in war-torn Somalia.
"We're demonstrating just to show these two women are accusing of doing one thing they did not do, are not capable of doing," Abdulle said.
Several protesters carried signs with photographs of needy children in Somalia, saying the defendants were only trying to help them.
Abdulle said Muslims have an obligation to feed the hungry and help the poor, especially as Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting and prayer, begins around Wednesday.
"They should be encouraged and not discouraged," Abdulle said.