MINNEAPOLIS – Two Minnesota women who claimed they were helping the poor in Somalia were convicted Thursday of conspiring to funnel money to a terrorist group as part of what prosecutors called a "deadly pipeline" sending funds and fighters to al-Shabab.
After the verdicts, one of the women, Amina Farah Ali, told the judge through an interpreter that she was happy because she was "going to heaven no matter what," and condemned those in authority, saying: "You will go to hell." She was ordered into custody pending her sentencing.
Ali, 35, and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, 64, were each charged with conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. Ali also faced 12 counts of providing such support, for allegedly sending more than $8,600 to al-Shabab from September 2008 through July 2009, while Hassan faced two counts of lying to the FBI.
Both were found guilty on all counts. The terrorism-related counts each carry up to 15 years in prison, while lying to the FBI carries up to eight years. No sentencing date was set, and prosecutors said it was too early to predict what sentence they'd recommend.
The women, both U.S. citizens of Somali descent, were among 20 people charged in Minnesota's long-running federal investigations into recruiting and financing for al-Shabab, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group with ties to Al Qaeda. Investigators believe at least 21 men left Minnesota — home to the country's largest Somali community — to join al-Shabab.
Though others have pleaded guilty to related charges, the women were the first to go to trial.
The verdicts will likely lead to other guilty pleas, said Omar Jamal, first secretary of the Somali mission to the United Nations in New York. He also said it would be difficult for law enforcement agencies to rebuild the trust they had worked to establish with the Somali community.
Prosecutors had emphasized that the case was not about a community or a religion, but two women who deliberately broke the law.
"The verdict reaffirms the principle that everyone who lives within our borders has to obey our laws," Paulsen said. He added that prosecutors would keep trying to improve relationships with the Somali community.
Prosecutors said the two women went door-to-door in the name of charity and held religious teleconferences to solicit donations, which they then routed to the fighters. The defendants said they believed the men were protecting their homeland from the Ethiopian army, which many saw as invaders.
The government's key evidence included hundreds of hours of recorded phone calls, obtained during a 10-month wiretap on Ali's home and cell phone. Prosecutors say those calls, which included talk of fighting in Somalia and sending money to fighters under false pretenses, showed the women knew they were doing something illegal.
Defense attorneys painted the women as humanitarians giving money to orphans and poor people, as well as a group they felt was working to push foreign troops out of Somalia.
Ali, who had been found in contempt of court when she refused to stand for religious reasons at the start of the trial, told Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis after the verdicts that she knows justice in God.
Her lawyer, Dan Scott, did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment. Ali's husband declined to comment.
Hassan was taken into custody but will be placed into a halfway house when possible. She will be on lockdown and monitored by GPS. She expressed concern in court about whether she would have to remove her head covering. Davis said she would be allowed to wear it.
Hassan's attorney, Tom Kelly, said he would wait until the sentencing before deciding whether to appeal.
"She seems to be at peace," he said of his client. "She's a deeply religious woman and puts her trust in Allah. I think there's a lesson to be learned there."
As part of its case, the government had to prove the women knew al-Shabab had been declared a foreign terrorist organization, or that they knew it was engaged in terrorist activity or terrorism.
During his closing argument, Scott said Ali began supporting al-Shabab before the U.S. government declared it a terrorist group in February 2008. He said the government offered no evidence that showed Ali knew al-Shabab had received the designation.
Prosecutor Steven Ward contended that Ali and Hassan were in contact with key al-Shabab leaders and getting frequent updates on the fighting. He said their conversations showed they knew al-Shabab was a terror group, sometimes celebrating casualties.
In one of those calls, Ali told others to "forget about the other charities" and focus on "the jihad." In another, she said, "Let the civilians die."
The case was closely watched by local Somalis. Dozens of supporters — mostly women — attended court each day. Several women in the courtroom sobbed after the two were taken into custody.
"I'm real sad," Fartun Abdiloor of Minneapolis said after the verdict. "It's so emotional, so intense. This decision is the opposite of what we expected."
Others in the Somali community were pleased.
"Because of the delay in the justice system there was a sense in the community that these folks are untouchable," said Abdirizak Bihi, whose nephew left Minneapolis as a teenager to join al-Shabab and was later killed in Somalia. "I'm very happy that justice is starting to deliver."
Bihi did not attend the trial but said the verdicts send a message to others that supporting the "brutal" acts of al-Shabab is a serious crime and "the government means business."