Federal prosecutors said two Minnesota women knew it was illegal to provide money to the terror group al-Shabab in Somalia, yet conspired to do so anyway _ going door-to-door to collect donations under false pretenses while hiding their true motives to ensure they didn't get arrested.
But during closing arguments Monday, defense attorneys for Amina Farah Ali, 35, and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, 64, said their clients were humanitarians who were giving money to orphans and poor people _ as well as a group they felt was protecting their war-torn homeland from abuses. Dan Scott, Ali's attorney, said his client made no attempt to hide her actions, which he said were motivated by a desire to help causes that shared her Muslim beliefs.
"She was raising money for the jihad. She was raising money for the fighters," Scott said, adding: "She's been true to her ideals. She is the whirlwind that put this together, there's no question about that."
He added Ali began supporting al-Shabab before the U.S. government declared it a terror organization in February 2008, and he said the government offered no evidence that showed Ali knew al-Shabab had received that designation.
"Just because Amina Ali wraps up what she's doing in the name of Islam, that doesn't make it right, and that's not a defense," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Paulsen said. He added that the women knew al-Shabab was trying to take over Somalia, and that these two women from Rochester were so "plugged in" that they gave advice to some of the al-Shabab leaders.
Ali and Hassan, two U.S. citizens of Somali descent, are accused of being part of a "deadly pipeline" that routed money and fighters from the U.S. to Somalia.
Both women 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 from September 2008 through July 2009. Hassan faces two counts of lying to the FBI.
Each terrorism count carries a 15-year maximum prison sentence, while lying to the FBI carries an eight year maximum.
The government has to prove that the women either knew al-Shabab had been declared a foreign terrorist organization, or that they knew it was engaged in terrorist activity or terrorism. The case went to the jury of 12 women and three men late Monday, and deliberations are expected to continue Tuesday.
Hundreds of hours of secretly recorded phone calls have been the government's key evidence against Ali and Hassan, who were among 20 people charged in Minnesota's long-running federal investigations into recruiting and financing for al-Shabab. Investigators believe at least 21 men left Minnesota _ home to the country's largest Somali community _ to join al-Shabab.
During the roughly two-week trial, prosecutors played recordings in which the women talked of fundraising and held teleconferences to solicit donations for the fighters. In one of those recorded calls, investigators allege, Ali said to "forget about the other charities" and focus on "the jihad." In others, both women speak with the leader of a militia allied with al-Shabab, and Ali gets updates on the fighting. In some calls, they celebrate news of deaths.
Somalia hasn't had a functioning government since 1991, when warlords over threw dictator Siad Barre then turned on each other. In 2006, Ethiopian soldiers viewed as abusive by many Somalis occupied parts of Somalia and al-Shabab began fighting against them. The U.S. declared al-Shabab a terrorist organization in early 2008. In late 2007, anti-Ethiopian sentiment was running high among the Somali diaspora in Minnesota.
Scott said after so much despair, it's understandable Ali would latch on to al-Shabab and its version of Sharia law as a solution. He said rather than committing terrorism, al-Shabab was carrying out what could be considered acts of war.
Of Somalia, he said: "If anyone is a government, it's al-Shabab. We may not like them, but there are many governments we don't like."
Hassan's attorney, Tom Kelly, said his client was a humanitarian who considered al-Shabab as a group of "freedom fighters" defending her homeland.
"Hawo Hassan was concerned about the orphans, the wounded. She wanted to expel the invaders," Kelly said. "She was looking for unity. ... Why would she be thinking of terrorism? This was a popular movement. This was an insurgency of the Somali people."
Kelly said his client was not part of any conspiracy, and had limited knowledge about what Ali was doing. He said his client saw Ali was shipping clothing and money to help people, so Hassan banded with her so she could do good.
Kelly also said Hassan admits she made false statements to the FBI, but contended those statements were not material to influence the government as it was conducting its terror investigation.
Paulsen disagreed. He also said the government does not dispute that Hassan does good work, but said "her humanitarian motives are secondary to her desire to get money to al-Shabab."
And of Scott's views on terrorism and al-Shabab, he told the jury: "You are not here to decide who is right and who is wrong in Somali government." He added that over the last several years, al-Shabab has been the "greatest impediment to a peaceful and safe and secure Somalia."