WASHINGTON — The government announced Thursday that it has charged 14 people as participants in "a deadly pipeline" to Somalia that routed money and fighters from the United States to the terrorist group al-Shabab.
The indictments unsealed in Minneapolis, San Diego and Mobile, Ala., reflect "a disturbing trend" of recruitment efforts targeting U.S. residents to become terrorists, Attorney General Eric Holder told a news conference. In one case, two women pleaded for money "to support violent jihad in Somalia," according to an indictment.
The attorney general credited Muslim community leaders in the United States for regularly denouncing terrorists and for providing critical assistance to law enforcement to help disrupt terrorist plots and combat radicalization. "We must ... work to prevent this type of radicalization from ever taking hold," Holder said.
Of the 14 people charged at least half are U.S. citizens and 12 of them are out of the country, including 10 men from Minnesota who allegedly left to join al-Shabab. Seven of those 10 Minnesota men named in one of Thursday's indictments had been charged previously in the probe.
Al-Shabab is a Somali insurgent faction embracing a radical form of Islam similar to the harsh, conservative brand practiced by Afghanistan's former Taliban regime. Its fighters, numbering several thousand strong, are battling Somalia's weakened government and have been branded a terrorist group with ties to al-Qaida by the U.S. and other Western countries.
Terrorist organizations such as al-Shabab continue to radicalize and recruit U.S. citizens and others to train and fight with them, said Sean Joyce, the FBI's executive assistant director for the national security branch.
One of two indictments issued in Minnesota alleges that two Somali women who were among those charged, and others, went door to door in Minneapolis; Rochester, Minn., and elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada to raise funds for al-Shabab's operations in Somalia. The indictment says the women – the only two people indicted Thursday who remain in the United States – raised the money under false pretenses, claiming it would go to the poor and needy, and used phony names for recipients to conceal that the money was going to al-Shabab.
Omar Hammami, who is now known as Abu Mansour al-Amriki, or "the American," was charged in Mobile, Ala. He has become one of al-Shabab's most high-profile members. He appeared in a jihadist video in May 2009.
At the news conference, Holder said Hammami has appeared in several propaganda videos for al-Shabab and "has assumed an operational role in that organization."
Hammami grew up in the middle-class town of Daphne, Ala., and attended the University of South Alabama in Mobile, where he was president of the Muslim Student Association nine years ago. Hammami, 26, enrolled at the university in 2001 but left in 2002; school officials said they have been unaware of his whereabouts since then.
Hammami's father, Shafik, is an engineer with the state highway department who also has served as president of the Islamic Society of Mobile. Shafik Hammami confirmed his relationship to Omar Hammami in e-mail exchanges with The Associated Press earlier this year but declined further comment.
In San Diego, prosecutors unsealed an indictment charging Jehad Serwan Mostafa, 28, with conspiring to provide material support to al-Shabab. Mostafa is believed to be in Somalia.
One of the Minnesota indictments alleges that the two women, Amina Farah Ali, 33, and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, 63, raised money by making direct appeals to people in teleconferences "in which they and other speakers encouraged financial contributions to support violent jihad in Somalia."
During one teleconference, the indictment says, Ali told others "to forget about the other charities" and focus on "the jihad."
The indictment says Ali and others sent the funds to al-Shabab through various hawalas, money transfer businesses that are a common source of financial transactions in the Islamic world. Ali is accused of sending $8,608 to al-Shabab on 12 occasions between Sept. 17, 2008, through July 5, 2009.
The fundraising operation in Minnesota reached into Ohio, where a Columbus resident helped collect donations for al-Shabab, according to one of the indictments unsealed in Minneapolis.
During appearances by Ali and Hassan before a federal judge Thursday in St. Paul, Minn., prosecutors didn't seek detention for either woman. A judge set several conditions for their release, including barring travel outside Minnesota without permission.
Ali's attorney said she denied the allegations. Asked whether she understood why she was in court, Ali said: "I do not know – however, I think maybe because of my faith."
At one point, speaking through a translator, Ali said: "Allah is my attorney."
She said she worked in home health care and had lived in Rochester for 11 years. Hassan said she was self-employed, running a day care.
After the FBI searched Ali's home in 2009, she allegedly contacted an al-Shabab leader in southern Somalia and said: "I was questioned by the enemy here. ... They took all my stuff and are investigating it ... Do not accept calls from anyone."
After being released, Ali and Hassan both said they are innocent. "We are not terrorists," Ali said.
Abdifatah Abdinur, a Somali community leader in Rochester, Minn., said Ali was known in the community as the go-to person if local Somalis had clothes or other goods to donate.
"If you have clothes, you give them to her," said Abdinur. "If you have shoes, give them to her." Abdinur said Ali was also a religious speaker who preached to women in the area. "I was surprised, as almost everybody was (to learn) that she was sending clothes to al-Shabab," Abdinur said.
Roughly 20 men from the U.S. – all but one of Somali descent – left Minnesota from December 2007 through October 2009 to join al-Shabab, officials have said.
On Thursday, a newly released State Department annual report on worldwide terrorism noted with concern that al-Qaida, particularly in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, appeared to be attracting growing numbers of radicalized Americans to its cause.
Forliti reported from Minneapolis and St. Paul. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala.; Jason Straziuso in Nairobi, Kenya; Lolita C. Baldor in Washington; and Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio.