ST. LOUIS – A federal grand jury has charged three men, including one from St. Louis and one from Minneapolis, with conspiring to funnel money to a terrorist group in Somalia that the U.S. says has ties to al-Qaida.
In an indictment returned Oct. 21 and unsealed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, prosecutors charged St. Louis taxi driver Mohamud Abdi Yusuf, a Somali national who immigrated to the U.S. as a refugee, with one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and three counts of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization — the radical Islamist group al-Shabab.
The government contends that Yusuf and Abdi Mahdi Hussein sent money through a Minneapolis wire-transfer business where Hussein worked to al-Shabab supporters in Somalia between 2008 and at least July 2009. Hussein, who is also of Somali descent, is charged with one count of conspiracy to structure monetary transactions. Yusuf also faces that count.
Duane Mohamed Diriye, who prosecutors contend was on the receiving end of some transactions, is charged with conspiracy and terrorist-funding counts and is believed to be in Somalia or Kenya.
The government says that Yusuf used aliases to wire the funds to al-Shabab supporters in Somalia through Qaran Financial Express, where authorities say Hussein worked. It was one of three Minneapolis money transfer businesses searched by FBI agents in April 2009.
Kulane Darman, president of Qaran Financial Express, told The Associated Press he doesn't know Hussein and the information from the government is incorrect.
"I don't know this person. This person never worked for me," Darman said.
According to the indictment, Yusuf, Hussein and other unspecified alleged schemers tried to mask thousands of dollars worth of wire transfers by breaking them up into small, independent transactions. They spoke in code and used bogus names, all to skirt laws governing wire transactions and to avoid detection, authorities said.
Federal agents arrested Yusuf on Monday in St. Louis and arrested Hussein on Tuesday in Minneapolis.
Both men made court appearances Tuesday. Yusuf's federal defender declined to comment Wednesday. A message left with Hussein's federal defender was not immediately returned, but authorities say he was released on bond. A phone listing for him was not available.
On Tuesday, a similar indictment was unsealed in California alleging that three San Diego residents coordinated fundraising and money transfers to al-Shabab in 2007 and 2008. Two of the San Diego men pleaded not guilty Wednesday. The third, who is accused of providing a Somali house for al-Shabab fighters, had a hearing scheduled for Friday.
The U.S. government's push to dry up funding sources of potential terrorist outfits has been an increasingly common tactic, complementing traditional military efforts, said Jeffrey Addicott, the director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University in San Antonio.
"The war on terror is not just about putting steel on targets," Addicott said. He added that going after funding can reduce logistical support of terror groups.
In August, authorities announced that 14 people in Minnesota, California and Alabama had been indicted for supporting what the U.S. government called a "deadly pipeline" routing money and fighters to al-Shabab. Seven of those people had been charged previously in Minnesota.
And last month, a Virginia man pleaded guilty to supporting al-Shabab and posting online threats to the creators of "South Park" for what he perceived as insults to the prophet Muhammad.
Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew a socialist dictator in 1991 and then turned on each other, causing anarchy in the nation of 7 million people. Al-Shabab fighters, who embrace a radical form of Islam, have been battling Somalia's weakened government and have been branded a terrorist group with ties to al-Qaida.
Authorities in the United States have been investigating al-Shabab for the last few years — with the center of the investigation in Minneapolis. Since late 2007, roughly 20 young men — all but one of Somali descent — have left Minneapolis in waves to fight with al-Shabab.
In October 2008, a Minneapolis man carried out a suicide bombing in Somalia, becoming the first known U.S. citizen to become a suicide bomber. At the time, the FBI said he possibly had been "radicalized" in Minneapolis.
The investigation in Minneapolis is ongoing. A total of 19 people have been charged in the Minnesota case, facing a variety of counts ranging from providing material support to terrorists to perjury.
According to 2009 figures, Minnesota is home to 32,300 Somalis, the largest population of Somali immigrants in the U.S. Local Somalis say the actual population is much higher.
Forliti contributed from Minneapolis.