MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Two Minnesota women accused of going door-to-door to raise money for al-Shabab knew the Somali-based group engaged in terrorism and “rejoiced” when they heard about its victories in their war-torn homeland, a prosecutor said Tuesday.
However, an attorney for one of the women told jurors during opening statements that Amina Farah Ali, 35, was just trying to help her fellow Somalis and didn’t know the U.S. considers al-Shabab a terrorist group.
Prosecutors have said Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, 64, were part of a “deadly pipeline” that routed money and fighters from the U.S. to Somalia. The women, both U.S. citizens of Somali decent, are charged with conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
Ali also faces 12 counts of providing such support — for allegedly sending more than $8,600 to the group on multiple occasions from September 2008 through July 2009. Hassan faces three counts of lying to the FBI.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Paulsen told jurors the two women solicited funds under false pretenses and when they learned about al-Shabab’s terrorist activities “they rejoiced in it, and then, they would go out and raise more money to send to al-Shabab.”
Paulsen said prosecutors will prove the women knew the money they collected was going to al-Shabab, that they knew they were doing something illegal, and that they knew the group engaged in terrorism.
Ali’s defense attorney, Dan Scott, said his client was an avid fundraiser who collected money and clothing for the needy. Scott didn’t outright tell jurors that Ali gave money to al-Shabab, but he did say she was raising money for people in Somalia fighting against “invaders.”
Somalia has been mired in conflict since 1991, when dictator Siad Barre was overthrown by warlords who then turned on each other. Islamist militants led by al-Shabab are trying to overthrow the weak U.N.-backed government that is being propped up by about 9,000 African Union peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi.
Scott said Somalis who fled that chaos and survived have a “built-in need to help.” He counted Ali among those people.
“Amina Ali was trying to get her help to the people she believed needed it the most, and for that, she should not be convicted,” Scott said.
He said Ali did not know al-Shabab had been declared a terrorist organization until the government told her in July 2009. The U.S. claims al-Shabab has ties to al-Qaida, and the State Department officially declared it a terrorist organization in 2008.
Hassan’s attorney plans to make his opening statement after the government presents its case.
Each terrorism count carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
Over the course of 10 months, investigators ran a wiretap on Ali’s home and cellphones, intercepting roughly 30,000 calls. Paulsen told jurors the wiretap ran for so long because Ali was “plugged in” to some prominent militants, including a regional governor for al-Shabab and a known terrorist who lectured at one of the women’s teleconferences.
The lecturers would give “fiery speeches and get people all worked up,” Paulsen said, then Hassan and Ali would take pledges. They would have someone else use false names to transfer the money to al-Shabab accounts, he said.
Paulsen said in one call, Ali admits she “diverts” money to al-Shabab, and that when choosing charities, it’s better to “let the civilians die. The Mujahidin should be supported.” Mujahidin is a term for holy warriors, Paulsen said.
Ali and Hassan had both been free pending trial, but Ali has been in custody since Monday for refusing to stand for the judge or the jury, citing religious grounds.
She told Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis on Tuesday that she was stripped naked, forced to remove her head covering, and told to put on a jail jump suit. She said through a translator that “strong people” came into her cell and forced her to the floor, and that she believed she was in the presence of men. One person stepped on her neck, she said.
She was then placed in a room with a camera, she said, and could not use the bathroom all night out of fear that men would be watching her. Her religion forbids her to be seen uncovered by men.
“I feel like I am being persecuted and I can no longer tolerate this kind of punishment,” she said.
Thomas Volk, spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service in Minnesota, said female sheriff’s deputies were called on to handle the situation. Volk said Ali then complied and changed into the standard jail clothing, and no force was used.
Davis said he has to balance protecting Ali’s modesty with jailhouse security, and that she must follow orders just like any other prisoner.
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